There are five major professional sports teams that call the state of New Jersey their home, much like some of the best people ever to be born do. (Yes, I’m biased, but would you want to argue with someone who can deal with jughandle turn lanes on a regular basis?)
The Devils, fresh off a turnaround season under veteran coach Lindy Ruff, are a competitive fourth in their division a month into 2023-24, having recently lost star Jack Hughes to injury. The MLS Red Bulls were eliminated from their seemingly interminable playoffs last week in two straight first round matches as a moribund 8/9 seed. Those Snoopy Bowl teams that share MetLife Stadium? The Jets are mathematically still relevant for the moment at 4-4 but are fresh off an embarassing Monday Night Football beatdown at the hands of the equally mediocre Los Angeles Chargers, and tonight will have yet another opportunity for prime time redemption–or, just as likely, embarassment, at the hands of the suddenly rejuvenated Las Vegas Raiders, who thoroughly dominated their stadiummate Giants last week. The 2-7 G-Men will visit Dallas this afternoon, the same Cowboys team that started their season off on a rainy September Sunday night with a 40-0 annihilation. So it’s almost understandable if the average New Jersey sports fan is either thoroughly invested in the Eagles or completely indifferent of late.
Well, last night, they actually had a reason to celebrate one of their own, assuming they even knew about them at all in the first place. They’re the state’s NWSL team and they’ve actually been around for quite a while, as Steve Politi of NJ Advance Media wrote:
The franchise was founded 17 years ago as Jersey Sky Blue, playing its home games on Rutgers’ home field and winning the first Women’s Professional Soccer championship in 2009. The team, rebranded NJ/NY Gotham FC in 2021, has been part of the National Women’s Soccer League since its inception 2012.
But since that inaugural championship in a league created from the remnants of the success fostered via that summer’s Women’s World Cup, the state’s women’s pro soccer team has done little to merit any sort of attention. Three winning seasons, two playoff apperances. And in 2022, a 4-17-1 record that saw them finish at the bottom of the NWSL.
Which makes what went down last night, as Politi also reported, all the more sweet:
FC Gotham is bringing its first NWSL championship home to New Jersey, completing a stunning worst-to-first transformation on Saturday night just one season after finishing dead last in the 12-team league.
The underdog sixth-seeded team defeated favored OL Reign, 2-1, in an often chaotic final that ended the brilliant careers of two U.S. soccer legends. One, Reign star Megan Rapinoe, limped off the field early in the game after suffering a non-contact leg injury. The other, Gotham captain Ali Krieger, walked off as a NWSL champion for the first time to help New Jersey’s franchise go from the worst record in the league a year ago to celebrating an unlikely championship.
And the match, unlike those played by their Harrison, New Jersey stadiummates who sold their media soles to Apple TV+, unfolded on good old broadcast televsion–CBS, no less–and actually proved to be riveting, as USA TODAY’s Ayrton Ostly and Nancy Armour wrote:
Gotham FC broke the 0-0 stalemate midway through the first half thanks to Lynn Williams’ goal from the center of the box in the 24th minute off a Midge Purce assist.
OL Reign took mere minutes to respond. Midfielder Rose Lavelle scored in the 29th minute on a fast break that she buried in the right corner of the net.
Gotham FC took the lead again right before halftime. A Purce cross was placed perfectly for Esther to score on a header in the center of the box and give Gotham a 2-1 lead.
Gotham kept control through the second half and left few opportunities for the Reign to respond. Lavelle avoided defenders around midfield and found Veronica Latsko for a fast break shot on goal but Gotham keeper Mandy Haught deflected it safely away. That ended up being the Reign’s best opportunity for much of the second half. With time winding down, Reign forward Elyse Bennett had a header grabbed by Haught at the edge of the box. Officials reviewed the play and ruled that Haught caught the ball outside of the box, resulting in a red card for the keeper. With no substitutions left, Gotham midfielder Nealy Martin stepped up into goal for the closing minutes. The Reign only managed one shot on goal before the final whistle blew and Gotham earned their first NWSL championship in franchise history.
A position player playing goaltender in a league championship match and shutting down their opponents with a one-goal margin? Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better. And Krieger, perhaps the most familiar face given her World Cup exposure, was exceptionally proud to bring it home for herself, her team, and make some of New Jersey’s finest exceptionally proud, as Politi continued:
“I think we came out here and we stuck to our plan,” Krieger said at the trophy presentation. “We know how good we can be so we applied everything we worked on this season… We were so, so excited to come out here, enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the grass, and I’m so happy we get to go home with this trophy.”
The moment is a significant one for New Jersey’s first couple. Gov. Phil Murphy is the team’s majority owner, while his wife Tammy Murphy has overseen a team’s resurrection from the bottom of the league as its chairwoman.
The team also recruited high-profile new investors such as former Giants quarterback Eli Manning, U.S. soccer legend Carli Lloyd and basketball stars Sue Bird and Kevin Durant.
There may not be a ticker tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes awaiting these champions. Heck, there may not even be a celebration anywhere near the Lincoln Tunnel. But I kinda suspect at least a nice party in the governor’s mansion, with perhaps some really good Hamilton Township Italian catering, awaits them. Lord knows New Jersey sports fans, let alone New Jersey politicos, deserve something better than what they’ve been served with this year.