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Gotham FC puts good start to the test against Megan Rapinoe and OL Reign

Jennifer Cudjoe of NJ/NY Gotham FC (right) battles

Jennifer Cudjoe of NJ/NY Gotham FC (right) battles for the ball during a match against the Houston Dash on May 15, 2021 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Credit: NJ/NY Gotham FC

Just as the region crawls back to normalcy, a new normal has taken hold for NJ/NY Gotham FC coach Freya Coombe and her squad as they settle into the routine of the NWSL season: they’re competitive.

Three matches through a transitional campaign featuring a new home venue and branding, there remains a confidence around Gotham FC that may seem misplaced for a club without a postseason appearance since 2013, but appears warranted during a relatively successful start for the team formerly known as Sky Blue FC. A preseason run to the NWSL Challenge Cup final put Gotham FC on the right track, and through a few games with mixed results, the club remains convinced it can be a real contender in the league right now thanks to improved depth and top-notch defense.

"I think everyone's still very much excited at the prospect of what we can achieve this year," Coombe said in an interview with Newsday. "I feel like we're off to a good start and now it's about putting all those performances together to try and get to the playoffs and bring some silverware into the club."

Gotham’s regular season began with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dash in the club’s debut as a permanent resident of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Gotham followed with a scoreless draw against the Chicago Red Stars and a loss to the Portland Thorns.

"I kind of know the team, I know what we are, people haven't seen all of us," midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe told Newsday. "It's a long season, we've added different types of players to our team and they haven't seen it all yet, but I think it's a process . . . at the right time, they’ll get to see all of that."

Gotham FC (1-1-1, 4 points) sits in a tie with six of the league’s 10 teams for fourth place entering Saturday’s match against OL Reign at RBA, a step forward after some years as NWSL bottom dwellers, but still with plenty of room for improvement.

"We're with the team every day so we know what we're capable of. I think there's still a lot of work to do," Coombe said. "I think that shows a lot of good intent about the team, that we still have so much that we want to do with it and that we're not happy with, and we're still in a good spot and have been able to put some good performances in. I just think that there's a lot to look forward to in our future."

While Gotham has yet to unlock its offense, the team boasts the NWSL’s top defense thus far, allowing just one goal -- Crystal Dunn’s screamer from outside the box in last week's loss to the Rockville Centre product’s Portland side.

"They always say defense wins championships and if you want to win a championship, you need to have a good defense, I will always give our defenders a lot of credit," Cudjoe said. "Sometimes we make a lot of plays for our opposition team, but then [the defense is] always there to clean it up and we always try to do our best to help them settle it down."

Coombe, now in her second full year as head coach, said the strength in defense comes first from goalkeepers Kailen Sheridan and DiDi Haracic, the former starting most matches with the latter exceling when called upon in the Challenge Cup. The keepers’ play, Coombe said, allowed confidence to build in the defenders, notably Mandy Freeman, whose return to action late in 2020 from a torn Achilles a year earlier has created healthy competition for minutes at centerback. The addition of World Cup winner and Northport alumnus Allie Long in a holding midfield role alongside Cudjoe also has added leadership and physicality to the squad, in turn creating even more personnel options for Coombe and her staff.

"It's tough, players are frustrated at not getting minutes and there's players that haven't seen as much of the field as they'd like, and in previous years they would've seen more of it," Coombe said. "I think that's just a credit to the level of competition that we've got for places right now and the strength of the roster that we're building."

That strength will be tested Saturday with Haracic expected in goal to replace Sheridan, currently on international duty with Canada, against an OL Reign attack that boasts several world-class talents in U.S. women’s national team stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle.

"[Rapinoe’s] delivery from set pieces and free kicks is incredible, as is her ability to read the game, so she’s definitely always a threat," Coombe said of the star’s recent play. "Then you’ve got Rose Lavelle and Jess Fishlock making runs from midfield and playing quite a free role in there, and I think they’re both kind of dangerous on the dribble. So I think there’s going to be quite a lot of danger in there attacking, but Pinoe’s been class the last few games."

NJ/NY Gotham FC vs. OL Reign

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

Watch: Paramount+

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