Eight days before their opening match of the Challenge Cup, then-Sky Blue announced that the club had rebranded to NJ/NY Gotham FC. In truth, the club had been in the process of an extremely necessary rebuild and the branding was finally catching up. Under head coach Freya Coombe and especially general manager Alyse Lahue, the profile of the club had been elevated through acquisitions such as Midge Purce, Ifeoma Onumonu and McCall Zerboni. They also continued to add talent through the draft, bringing in Canadian forward Évelyne Viens and signing one of the best stories in the NWSL, midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe, and recently brought in veteran midfielder Allie Long. A club once plagued by poor management and embarrassments both on and off the pitch had been reborn.
Growth, however, is one of those weird things that’s more noticeable to outside observers than those experiencing it. Carli Lloyd signed with the club in 2018 and was by far their most decorated and recognizable player. Though Sky Blue struggled in ’18 and ’19, finishing with records of 1-6-17 and 5-5-14 respectfully, Lloyd was the club’s joint top-scorer in 2018 and far and away the highest scorer a year later. An understanding of numbers informs us that 2019 really wasn’t that long ago, but during the 2021 Challenge Cup Final, now-Gotham’s need to grow beyond a reliance on Lloyd couldn’t be clearer.
While Lloyd scored Gotham’s lone goal that propelled them into penalties versus preseason favorites and the super-loaded Portland Thorns, she also gifted the Thorns their goal with a poor turnover in midfield. Additionally, there were opportunities for Gotham to create danger in front of goal and give them a good chance to win in regular time, particularly with backup goalkeeper DiDi Haracic in unreal form. Instead, Gotham’s attack was a disjointed mess. Lloyd’s current skillset and abilities don’t fit the skillset and abilities of the players on either side of her, and the result is a mismatched unit being kept from finding another gear.
At 38-years-old, and she’ll tell you this herself, it truly is amazing that Carli Lloyd is still one of the fittest players in women’s football. In fact, it’s possible that she’ll screenshot this piece to use as motivation. However, the ability to run without tiring doesn’t equal the ability to cover distance quickly. Against the Thorns this was revealed multiple times, the most obvious of which was Lloyd – despite being alone and without a defender in front of her – failing to get to the penalty spot after Purce pressed hard, won the ball, then steamed down the flank and sent a cross rolling into the box.
This wasn’t only evident in the Challenge Cup final, it’s been evident all Challenge Cup. Gotham had two 0-0 draws in Carli Lloyd starts (vs. Spirit, Racing Louisville) and totaled just six shots on target combined. Prior to the final, Gotham scored in their only match without Lloyd (a match also played without additional internationals Purce and Viens), and their best match with Lloyd in the lineup — a 4-3 no defense all vibes bout with the Courage — Midge Purce served as the team’s central attacking force. In fact, Lloyd scored a goal by making a run behind Midge, whose central position (and two goals) kept both center backs from marking Lloyd’s run into the box.
The match with the North Carolina Courage was by far Gotham’s best attacking display, and it’s no coincidence that Évelyne Viens’ winning goal came from being quick enough to get on the end of an Ifeoma Onumonu cross in stoppage time. Rather than continue with this setup, Gotham reverted to type and used Lloyd as the focal point of their attacks, and picked up a pair of 0-0s because of it, and a tepid performance in front of goal in the Challenge Cup final — registering just one shot on goal.
Growth means recognizing when something doesn’t fit anymore, and Lloyd spearheading Gotham’s attack just doesn’t fit their acquired personnel. With Purce, Monaghan, Viens and Onumonu, Gotham possess an attack that could hit another gear if not being governed by Lloyd.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Lloyd should be benched, only that she shouldn’t be the team’s focus in attack. Gotham can look to their opponents in the final for a tip on how to involve an aging superstar talent. The Thorns allow Christine Sinclair to exploit space created by the younger, quicker forwards ahead of her ( usually Simone Charley and Sophia Smith). A similar formation would excel at Gotham, and in practice was what allowed them to drop four goals on the Courage.
However, if Gotham persist with their 433 formation, Évelyne Viens should lead the line. Viens complements the abilities of Purce, Monaghan and/or Onumono, who are all in some combination proficient at 1v1s, running the channels and pressing high to create transition attacking opportunities. Lloyd would also be a perfect option to deploy as a change of pace substitution or to counter opposition dropping deep and allowing time on the ball around the box.
No matter the solution, if not applied, Gotham will continue to struggle unnecessarily in attack. It’s understandable if the suddenness of Gotham’s development has kept them unaware that they’ve outgrown their reliance on Carli Lloyd, but it’d be a disservice to the players they recruited to let this naivete persist.