No matter what happens in NWSL final on Saturday, there will be a new NWSL champion.
OL Reign, who took down the top-seeded San Diego Wave last weekend, and NJ/NY Gotham FC, who pushed past the Portland Thorns in extra time, will battle for a first NWSL Championship win in club history. Neither team entered the playoffs as favorites, though in the parity-filled NWSL, sometimes there simply aren’t any favorites. Gotham snuck into sixth and final spot in the playoff bracket, while OL Reign finished fourth.
Now all that’s left standing between each of these teams and the trophy is the other.
To help get you ready for Saturday’s matchup, we’re digging into each team’s title hopes and giving you a few things to watch out for during the game. How did they make it this far, and will what worked for them all season be enough to win the NWSL Championship?
It’s been a season of consistency for Laura Harvey’s OL Reign squad. They finished eight points off their Shield-winning pace from 2022, but stayed above the playoff line for 21-consecutive weeks after a 1-0 loss to the Washington Spirit to start the year.
Following up their fourth-place finish in the regular season, OL Reign snuck past Angel City by a 1-0 scoreline in the first round of the playoffs. A strong header from winger Veronica Latsko in the 87th minute sealed the game for the Reign, pushing them in a semifinal meeting with the San Diego Wave.
That matchup between the two best NWSL defenses in the regular season — based on expected goals allowed, per Fbref — looked an awful lot like what you’d expect a matchup between the two best NWSL defenses to look like. Neither team gave an inch, with just as many shots coming from outside the box as from inside the box. To break the deadlock and book their spot in the final, OL Reign needed one of, uh… they needed one of whatever this is:
OL Reign — named for their affiliation with Olympique Lyonnais — don’t feel the need to dominate control of the ball. This year, they averaged 48.5% possession, which put them seventh in the 12-team NWSL.
Instead of prioritizing the ball, Harvey prioritizes defensive compactness and quick attacking transitions in her team. The Reign typically play out of a 4-2-3-1 shape, defending in a mid-block to frustrate opposing teams and limit their space in the attacking half. They’re not opposed to pressing high up the field, but it’s not their go-to, either. OL Reign finished 10th in the NWSL in PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) with 11.5 in the regular season, according to Opta.
In possession, the Reign tend to look for the home run more often than they look for the base hit, to borrow baseball terms. According to FBref, the Reign played more long balls than any team in the league during the regular season (78.4 per 90 minutes) and crossed the ball more than all but two teams (18.7 per 90). In the final third, Megan Rapinoe runs the show out on the left wing, with her 33.2 touches in the attacking third per 90 a full 14 more than the next closest teammate.
How the Reign can win the NWSL Championship
The short answer? By staying the course.
During their two playoff games so far, the Reign showed they can get results by grinding defensively and producing a moment of magic in the final third. Against a Gotham team that likes to spread the field and use the ball, defensive discipline will be key. If they maintain their shape and Emily Sonnett has a strong performance in her defensive midfield role, it will be a long night for Gotham — just like it was during the playoffs for Angel City and then the San Diego Wave.
After winning the ball inside their own half, there will be opportunities for the Reign to stream forward on the counter. Gotham have defended well this year, but they let their opponents shoot closer to goal (16.4 yards, on average) than every team in the NWSL not named the Chicago Red Stars, who finished last in the league standings.
With Rose Lavelle expected to start as the No. 10 in the central midfield, OL Reign will have a conductor in central areas. She’ll help balance all of the crosses from Rapinoe on the left and Sofia Huerta on the right. With quick, efficient touches from their creators and sharp off-ball movement from their forwards inside the box, the Reign can find one more magical moment to finish off their playoff journey.
How NJ/NY Gotham reach the final
It’s been a wild turnaround for NJ/NY Gotham. After finishing last in the league in 2022, they’re now playing for a trophy in the NWSL Championship this weekend on the back of a sixth-place finish in the regular season. Gotham never came close to repeating their lows from last year, staying above the playoff line for the entire season and even sitting in first for two weeks.
In the first round of the playoffs, Gotham traveled to North Carolina to take on the Courage, winning 2-0 in the process. Juan Carlos Amorós’ Gotham team didn’t have Kerolin to deal with due to an injury, but they still did an admirable job of wrestling control and chances away from the Courage. In the semifinals, NJ/NY Gotham faced a tougher task: beating the Portland Thorns at Providence Park. Amorós’ squad was unfazed, however, and controlled the game in regulation before finding a 107th minute winner.
Gotham — nicknamed the Bats by the team’s players — seem to never run out of energy. They press. Then they press a little bit more. And then, for fun, they press just a little bit more. According to Opta, Gotham pressed more than any team in the NWSL during the regular season.
Gotham allowed just 8.8 passes per defensive action and forced 367 high turnovers — those numbers both led the league. A big chunk of those pressures come right after they lose the ball in the final third. Gotham finished with more possession than every team outside of North Carolina in the regular season, averaging 54.1%.
Under Amorós, Gotham typically play out of a 4-3-3 shape. He wants his team to spread the field in possession to create as many one-v-ones as possible all over the field. With Lynn Williams and Midge Purce lurking in the attack, a lot of those one-v-ones tend to go Gotham’s way.
Williams, in particular, is a major threat in the frontline as a winger or a striker. She finished fifth in the regular season in non-penalty goals (6) and is one of the NWSL’s most versatile attackers. Per FBref, she also finished fifth in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists (9.4).
How Gotham FC can win the NWSL Championship
Two things will define NJ/NY Gotham’s success on Saturday: what they do with the ball against OL Reign’s compact defense and how they defend right after losing possession. We’ve already covered the Reign’s defensive solidity — Harvey’s team is incredibly difficult to break down — but Gotham, as the much more ball-dominant and expansive team, will have to find a way through.
Gotham have been good, but not great at turning possession into chances this year: They finished fourth in the NWSL in expected goals in the regular season (30.7), per FBref. In the final, if they can stretch OL Reign horizontally with the threat of their wingers, Gotham will create space for midseason striker signing Esther González to exploit. González, who started as a free No. 8 in the semifinals, will crash the box regardless of where she starts in possession.
Keeping the tempo high and switching the ball from side-to-side to force the defense to shift will be non-negotiable for NJ/NY Gotham this weekend. But Gotham have to be purposeful in possession — and they have to be sharp after losing the ball, too. With the Reign ready to attack on the break, Gotham’s counter pressing will be tested. They’ve been sharp in defensive transition this year, allowing fewer progressive passes and recording more tackles in the final third than any team in the league.
If Gotham maintain their usual energy levels and react quickly after the ball turns over, they’ll sniff out most of OL Reign’s attacks before they even start. Then they can clean up the rest with sharp defending in their box on the Reign’s crosses.