Gotham FC’s worst-to-almost-first tale begins somewhere beneath the basement of the National Women’s Soccer League.
The New Jersey-based club will play in its first NWSL final Saturday (8 p.m. ET, CBS) at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego one year after a pitiful season that ended with a league-worst 13 points and 17 losses in 22 games.
But numbers undersell the scope of its turnaround. Its 2022 futility was not rock bottom. This is a story that begins last decade with leaking ceilings and dried mucus on walls, without locker rooms or running water at team facilities, and with rampant sub-professional conditions that scarred players and made the franchise, then known as Sky Blue FC, the most ridiculed and censured in the league.
Those conditions finally sparked a reckoning in 2018, amid a shocking Sky Blue season that careened off the rails, without a win until the very last weekend. That was the fissured bedrock from which a 2023 NWSL finalist has risen.
The turnaround began off the field, with improved housing, groundshares and a 2021 rebrand. Then it accelerated on the field in 2023. It’s been steered by a few U.S. national team veterans — most notably Lynn Williams and 39-year-old Ali Krieger — and by Juan Carlos Amorós, the recently named NWSL Coach of the Year.
But it’s also the latest in a long line of evidence that working conditions and infrastructure matter. Gotham’s growing ownership group invested more than ever before in 2023, nearly doubling the size of the team’s technical staff. Those investments, as they often do in women’s soccer, are paying off.
‘The girls deserve better’
Gotham, founded in 2006 as Jersey Sky Blue, is the longest-operating professional women’s soccer team in the United States — but for years, it was “professional” in name only.
It was co-founded and financed by Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum who’s now the governor of New Jersey. His motivation, he’d later say, was essentially to inspire his soccer-playing daughter. His problem, apparently, was that he and co-owner Steven Temares, then-CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond, had no clue how to run a soccer club. They largely left it in the hands of Tony Novo, a mortgage loan officer at PNC Bank who, in 2013, became Sky Blue’s part-time general manager and president.
Novo oversaw an operation that players and coaches described as amateurish and draining. They trained at colleges and elementary schools, on rough turf and “horrible grass.” Without proper medical equipment, and without locker rooms or laundry facilities or an equipment manager, they’d arrive in smelly or self-washed training gear, plop their backpacks down beside a field, and practice, as if they were a U-13 travel team.
They couldn’t shower after practice, or even after games at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field. To treat her aching muscles, Carli Lloyd would take ice baths in a 50-gallon trash can. And they couldn’t go to the bathroom, except in a port-a-potty. (When all of this came to light, the club’s temporary solution was a field-side RV with a toilet and shower.)
And the ghastly conditions didn’t end there. They extended to player housing. The club provided a rotating cast of rentals, some 45-plus minutes away, often for only a few months at a time, forcing players to move multiple times mid-season. Some would sleep in bunk beds, or even on teammates’ couches. Some were reportedly forced to live with an elderly man who repeatedly made inappropriate comments, or with a couple who “scolded” one player for not caring for their daughter.
And the homes themselves? “Players reported living in houses with broken windows, cracked floors, leaking ceilings, dried mucus on the walls, and, in one instance, a whole human toenail sitting on a windowsill,” Sally Yates later wrote in her 2022 investigative report on abuse in women’s soccer. “One player stated that her housing was so abysmal that she believed the house had been abandoned. Another player even reported finding a bag of cocaine in her bedsheets.”
Assistant coach Dave Hodgson, speaking to The Equalizer in 2018 after leaving the club, called some of the living conditions “horrific.”
On the road, life wasn’t any better. There were early-morning flights and stops at gas stations or fast food joints to save money. Other cost-cutting measures left the players (and their equipment) cramming into vans, or passing time before night games in common rooms because they had to check out of hotel rooms early. On one trip to North Carolina, Hodgson alleged, they spent hours at the airport, unable to hire vans, because a credit card didn’t work.
All of this came to light in 2018, via The Equalizer and Once A Metro, after former striker Sam Kerr scored a hat trick against Sky Blue then spoke out about how “the girls deserve better.” And all of it contributed to the worst season in NWSL history, 9 points from 24 games.
The following February, the club’s top two draft picks, Hailie Mace and Julia Ashley, spurned Sky Blue and headed overseas to avoid these “bad things.”
And it was around this time, it seems, that ownership decided they had to change.
Big-name investment yields a new era
In 2019, after years of neglect, Tammy Murphy, Phil’s wife, announced that she’d take on “an active role in club activities moving forward.” She “committed to improving the player experience.” The club soon parted ways with Novo and, inch by inch, tried to uphold Murphy’s promise.
Ahead of the 2020 season, it moved in with the New York Red Bulls, at the MLS club’s training facility and stadium. It welcomed Ed Nalbandian as a minority owner and managing partner. In 2021, a week before its season began, it unveiled a sleek new logo and name, NJ/NY Gotham FC. And six months later, it snuck into the playoffs for the first time since the NWSL’s inaugural season, 2013.
But still, not all was well. In 2022, as Ali Krieger told ESPN, they remained “a mess.” They’d cycled through five coaches from 2019-2022. Scott Parkinson, one of the five, recently said: “When we got into the offseason of 2022, I think it’s fair to say there were some alignment issues internally. I don’t think the club was ready to commit to what was required. We weren’t good in 2022 and I think we were fighting a tough battle off the field as much as we were on the field.”
As they slumped to another last-place finish, though, and endured an unprecedented losing streak that spanned more than half the season, they began attracting investors. Lloyd, now retired, bought in. Kevin Durant, his business partner Rich Kleiman, Sue Bird, Eli Manning and New York Giants executive Pete Guelli followed. The club’s valuation rose above $40 million. A better ownership structure had crystallized. And a new era began.
The first significant investment over the past year was in Amorós, a Spaniard who previously coached Tottenham, Real Betis and the Houston Dash. Gotham hired him away from the Dash, then backed him with a strength and conditioning coach, a head of tactical analysis, and a generally expanded staff. The club arranged a preseason camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. General manager Yael Averbuch West, — who, as a former player and NWSL Players Association leader, had been an unconventional hire — meanwhile, traded for Lynn Williams and Yazmeen Ryan, and built a roster that Amorós could mold into a high-pressing machine.
That machine stormed out of the gates this spring. It slowed down the stretch, but squeaked into the playoffs on goal differential. And through 210 minutes of playoff action so far, it hasn’t conceded a single goal. It toppled Portland, the defending champs, in a rain-soaked semifinal last Sunday, 1-0. Katie Stengel’s extra-time curler sent Gotham to San Diego, where this reborn club will chase its first NWSL trophy.
It also knows, of course, that this is not the culmination of the journey. For all its growth, Gotham still attracts below-league-average attendance (6,293 per game in 2023), and still doesn’t have a training ground or offices that it can call its own.
But it is now a truly professional club. It is hiring execs and attracting more investors as it rises. And it is the latest example that, in the NWSL, there is often direct correlation between off-field expenditure and on-field success.