Wednesday, November 29, 2023

NWSL Championship reaches new heights as Ali Krieger, Megan Rapinoe leave game better than they found it

SAN DIEGO — NJ/NY Gotham FC are 2023 National Women’s Soccer League Champions after a 2-1 victory against OL Reign in a game that provided end-to-end action, an unimaginable injury and high drama with VAR. The championship battle ended up as the perfect ending for former U.S. women’s national team player and two-time World Cup winner Ali Krieger, who retires after reaching the pinnacle of the NWSL.

“This is, like, an incredible moment for us. I’m so proud of the team. We worked so hard, we bought into the plan, we said this from day one and no one’s gonna believe us. But in the preseason, we were like, ‘We have to go worst to first,’ and we were kind of like laughing at first because we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’re really going to do it,'” Krieger told media after the game.

She recalled the team having a moment midway through the season where the team started to believe that they could complete the narrative when they beat the Seattle side in the spring in a 4-1 victory.

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“Day to day, it just kept getting better and better and better and we gained more experience,” Krieger explained. “Midway through the season in Seattle, and we won .. we were like, ‘We’re like first place? Like this could actually be a thing.’ And then we just kept gaining that confidence and we just promised each other we would do everything in order to get here and I am so proud of us and I’m so proud of myself … This is incredible. I am so ecstatic.”

The best stage for the best players

The week leading up to the big event, players, coaches, media and fans alike noted the evolution of the final over the last decade. The growth of the event from year one to year 11 was evident in expanded signage and events, and it just needed one incredible match to tie everything up. 

Lynn Williams has now won four NWSL titles with three clubs in her career. She’s seen the event evolve since her first appearance in 2016. The final between Gotham and the Reign drew 25,011 fans in attendance. The number eclipsed the previous record in 2018 during the NWSL Championship in Portland, where Williams won her second of four titles as a member of North Carolina Courage. 

“I think the first one I was in, there were like 10 people in the stands,” she joked. “[Now] It’s 25,000 people. It’s incredble. This is what we play for. We want there to be emotions in the stands. We want the crowd to help us through, or boo us, honestly. That’s what sports is about, to get booed, to also be cheered for.”

Since the first championship in 2013, the league has seen teams cease operations, others got absorbed and restarted. New franchises expanded into markets though, with more on the way. The league has welcomed new owners with fresh visions and built up sponsorships and even announced a brand new multiyear broadcast deal. Williams noted that the various transformations and influx of new blood has combined for a better NWSL Championship product.

“Just the investment, you know, having a mixed zone for media, honestly. Sometimes as players, we’re always like, ‘Oh, I want to just go to my team and celebrate’ but these are the moments that grow the game and we need them. So to have this moment right here is incredible. I’ve only had it on the national team. I haven’t had it in NWSL. So to have this is incredible. I think just the whole production, there’s obviously bits and pieces that we need to tweak, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Achieving goals and striving for more

Megan Rapinoe’s night was tragically cut short as the long-time player confirmed to media that she ultimately sustained an Achilles injury when she went down in the sixth minute of the match. 

“I wasn’t overly emotional about it. I mean I f—ing yeeted my Achilles in the sixth minute in my last game ever in the literal championship game,” she quipped in postgame comments.

Still, her legacy won’t be defined by her exit in the final, but by the ever-lasting impact players of her generation left on the game. The celebrations for Krieger and Rapinoe in the build-up to the final were endless and well-earned. 

The NWSL Championship has evolved in vastly different ways since the league’s inaugural season. The league expanded its events calendar, introducing the first-ever skills challenge and expanding on past events. Plenty of storylines between both teams, including the head-to-head between Krieger and the equally iconi Rapinoe in what was the final professional game for the two former USWNT teammates.

“I mean, I don’t even remember much from the first couple [title games] and not because of how far away it was, just because I don’t think there was anything to remember,” she told media.

“It’s been amazing, to be honest. It’s felt really special for us. I think it’s been such a testament to just how far the league has come and how much it’s grown. The media day was great. Just having all this media here is amazing. Announcing the new media deal with the league. Incredible. Just kind of the hype and the storylines and all the personalities on both teams. I think it is really different.” 

The duo has played in the NWSL since its inception, with Rapinoe in finals in 2014 and 2015 with the Reign, and Kreiger with the Spirit in 2016. The big game feels drastically different now and it’s in part because of the constant efforts of a generation of players who were asked to believe in a third attempt at a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. 

“I think it is one of those moments that we’ll back look back on and say, ‘This one was a lot different’ … I think it was much different. I’ve been saying it all week, but I’m just so excited for where the league is in so many ways, I wish I was coming into the league now. Just the opportunity, where the teams are going, and funding and resources and excitement and fanfare and all of it.”

Experienced generation looks ahead

When the 2024 season gets underway, it will be without Krieger and Rapinoe on the pitch. Their generation of players have won endless trophies, all while fighting for equality, being vocal on social issues and growing the NWSL. 

“I think even for me stepping away, there’s no sense of ‘Damn, like, I wish things were different.’ It’s just like, this is what we have built. This is what the players who played in my generation, this is part of our legacy and what we’ve left behind and what is now here for the kids to take and do with it what they want,” Rapinoe said. 

“But I feel like we’ve left a pretty solid blueprint for them to continue to not only grow the game … but also to effect change off the field and continue to couple that with what they’re doing on the field. I’m just, I’m a proud gay aunt you know, looking down on the league like ‘Damn, we did good,’ but they’re going to be able to take it so much further.”

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