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Gotham FC riding high on and off pitch entering NWSL season opener

Gotham FC's Carli Lloyd battles for the ball

Gotham FC's Carli Lloyd battles for the ball during the NWSL Challenge Cup on Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. Credit: NJ/NY Gotham FC

How important is strong branding for an up-and-coming sports franchise? The Northeast's only NWSL team is learning the answer.

The new identity for NJ/NY Gotham FC is a clear play at making the club formerly known as Sky Blue FC a team folks on this side of the Hudson River can embrace, an attempt to increase visibility and marketability for one of the league’s longtime underachievers, both in wins and attendance.

So far, the rebrand is working. The move appeared to be popular among longtime supporters, some of whom were consulted during the process, as well as fans new to the club, and its influence is being felt on and off the pitch.

"There’s nothing but energy," said Gotham FC coach Freya Coombe. "A renewed sense of energy and ambition, I think, amongst the players."

Gotham enters the 2021 NWSL regular season as one of the league’s most interesting stories amid a momentous few weeks and after years in obscurity. The club opens with its new look in a new home against the Houston Dash at 7 p.m. on Saturday, available to stream on Paramount+. It will be Gotham’s first home regular-season match since taking permanent residency at Red Bull Arena, the 25,000-seat home of MLS’s New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey, a major upgrade from years at Rutgers’ Yurcak Field after a successful test run at RBA in 2019.

The rebrand’s early success already is apparent with ticket sales. With past attendance issues, Gotham originally planned only to use the lower bowl at Red Bull Arena, even with limited-capacity restrictions in place. Yet those seats sold out this week, the club announced, and the upper bowl was opened. A few dozen pods of unsold seats remain on the primary market as of Friday afternoon, but most are gone.

Gotham is thriving on the field in wake of the rebrand, something uncommon for a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since the league’s inaugural 2013 run.

"I think we needed this fresh start, I think this is a big step for us," said Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan, entering her fifth year with the organization. "We've been through a lot as a club and it only made us stronger throughout the years and I think that's important to remember, but restarting fresh with a new name and with this new energy of expectation and standard for the club, it trickles all the way down on the field."

In the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, Gotham was unbeaten in its four group matches, going 2-2-0 with wins over the Orlando Pride and yearly contender North Carolina Courage to reach the final, seen nationally on CBS. Against Portland Thorns FC and Long Island native Crystal Dunn, Gotham took the home side to penalties after a 1-1 draw, only to drop the shootout, 6-5. Recently, the club added some local flare with World Cup winner and Long Island native Allie Long, bringing in another player with national team experience alongside Carli Lloyd and Midge Purce.

"We're sitting at a point now where we're still unbeaten as Gotham FC, no one's been able to win," Coombe said. "Obviously against Portland we lost on penalties, but I believe it still counts as a draw in terms of our stats, so there's definitely an energy amongst the players that they want to keep achieving.

"Just not settling on the fact that we did well in the Challenge Cup, that's not enough for us. It's certainly not enough for the coaching staff, it's not enough for the players, it's not enough for the organization."

Maintaining that expectation of achievement will be the challenge for Coombe and a squad not so used to success throughout a 24-match campaign.

"We know that it's going to be a long season," midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe said. "But I know that for what we've built and what we're about to show the world, it's just something incredible and I'm just so happy to be on this journey with every single one."

NJ/NY Gotham FC vs. Houston Dash

7 p.m., Saturday, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey

Watch: Paramount+

Listen: NWSL Radio

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