NEW YORK -- There are few destinations more fitting than the Empire State Building to officially kick off a victory lap, but for NJ/NY Gotham FC, it felt like a particularly appropriate venue.
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The new NWSL champions completed a rare feat when they clinched their title last Saturday -- they rebounded from a last-place finish a year ago to become the last team standing, reaching heights as impressive as the New York City landmark the team stood in on Thursday and doing so as swiftly as the elevators that took them to the observation deck on the 86th floor.
It was not possible without a rebuild. Gotham brought in Juan Carlos Amoros as the head coach and a host of new players, including NWSL Championship goalscorers Lynn Williams and Esther Gonzalez. It provided the team with a fresh start, but the true tone-setting moment did not come from the newcomers. Instead, it came from a person with a history at the club -- former player and current general manager Yael Averbuch West.
"Her first year was rough," Williams said. "I think that it's going to be rough for anybody but at the beginning of this year, she came in and said, 'Look, we're going to have a foundation and we know we have so far to go. We know it hasn't been good enough.' … I think that's been really cool to see and she recognizes, again, that we have so far to go but it's about building that foundation."
Then, the small things started coming together for Gotham. Fellow newcomer Yazmeen Ryan commended Amoros' "step by step" integration of his attack-minded tactical style as well as the culture he created that allowed players to "flourish around those you trust and have fun with." The team also celebrated the little victories alongside the larger ones -- and each other along the way.
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"We have so many different nationalities and [language] speakers on this team and in one of the very first meetings, Juan and the coaching staff put, in closed captions, everybody's language," Williams said. "[Ex-player Nahomi Kawasumi's] on the team, it was in Japanese, Portuguese for [Bruninha], and in Spanish. I think that small gesture just created a community of acceptance and just starting out on that base level allowed our foundation of, 'We believe in you.'"
Williams and Ryan are two former NWSL champions who joined the new-look team ahead of this season, but Gotham's squad is made up in part of personnel with nomadic soccer journeys. Williams is in her fourth NWSL market, while newly retired defender Ali Krieger played for three teams in the league and had notable stints in Germany and Sweden. No player has Amoros beat, though -- he has held head coaching roles in the U.S., England and his native Spain and also listed stops in Australia, the Netherlands, China, and Denmark when recounting his soccer experiences.
Even though Amoros' reputation as a coach is very much associated with his style of play, the newly-minted NWSL Coach of the Year said his globe-trotting journey taught him that success is not entirely about the tactics.
"You can win with a lot of styles and a lot of game plans," he said. "We have a very special one, I think, but understanding people is the key to coaching … I've been around the world. The thing that is common to everyone is people and you need to understand different cultures, how they approach different things and the other thing being the key is trying to maximize people."
It is almost poetic that their paths converged successfully in the New York metropolitan area, a microcosm of the world itself, and that it came as the NWSL continued to demonstrate its wide-ranging growth with a new media rights deal and soaring attendances. It is also a marker of Gotham's own evolution, which is arguably more impressive than the worst-to-first transformation the team enjoyed this year.
Five short years ago, the club -- then called Sky Blue FC -- generated headlines for all the wrong reasons for its below-standard working conditions. Players did not have access to showers at training, were asked to bring their own water and faced inhospitable conditions through housing the club was mandated to assist with. It took several months for the ineffective then-general manager Tony Novo to resign, but the exposé served as a wake-up call. Owners slowly but surely pumped in investment, most notably in a move from Rutgers University's unimpressive soccer stadium to Red Bull Arena, home of MLS' New York Red Bulls. New investors and sponsors signed up, while attendances also began to climb.
It's been a dramatic transformation in player experience for someone like Williams, who was a rookie eight years ago with the Western New York Flash.
"I think that the league obviously has still so far to go, but my first year in the league, I had to get up and wash my own jersey and my teammates' jerseys as a rookie," she said. "It just is really cool to see it unfold in my playing career and I think that as you first come into this, people in my generation said, 'We're going to fight for the next generation' so to be able to benefit in some of that … is incredible."
The final piece was the on-field success, which was something Gotham continued to struggle with until this year. The 2023 season marked only the third time Gotham qualified for the playoffs, and this was the first year they won a postseason match.
"As a player watching this club, it was concerning and also confusing at why there wasn't so much success on the field, obviously as an outsider," Williams said, "because I think the talent has always been there."
The team was able to get over that hump in style, and is now reaping the rewards of that triumph. Before formally beginning their championship celebration at the Empire State Building, Gotham players have been making the rounds in all types of New York spots, including stops at Nasdaq MarketSite, Good Morning America and Watch What Happens Live.
"Before, you'd win and then you'd go home the next day and say, 'Cool! We did it. See you guys next year,' but now it's really cool and this is how we grow the game," Williams noted.
The winding paths of Gotham's players and coaches mean they can each offer unique insight at the rapidly-changing landscape.
"It's a dream come true," Amoros said. "When I started coaching 25 years ago, you can only dream of living something like this. I used to play Football Manager games and win trophies on my laptop … and now I'm living it at the highest level in the planet."
For the first time, the pieces feel like they are starting to come together for Gotham, which is allowing a team that has already reached impressive heights to reach even higher.
"We want to get better, we want to make Gotham a reference," Amoros said. "We want this club to be recognized in the world and I think luckily, this is starting to happen. A lot of people, not only in America but around the globe, [are] changing the vision. With that comes responsibility that we are ready to take on and that we are happy we got to this position."