SAN DIEGO – The hype, the pomp, the circumstance, the storylines, everything was there for a memorable NWSL Championship to close out the 2023 season.
OL Reign and Gotham FC were both hunting to claim their first NWSL Championship with the added element that this match was the final game for OL Reign's Megan Rapinoe and Gotham FC's Ali Krieger, both two-time FIFA World Cup champions.
The stage was set – but such is the unpredictability of sports, one of the major players would exit said stage four minutes in. Rapinoe went down with a non-contact injury, later confirmed by her in the postgame that she had suffered a right Achilles injury. What could have been an evening of unbelievable emotional highs came crashing down like a brick as OL Reign tried their best to overcome the unexpected early departure of one of their impact players, the worst possible way for Rapinoe's illustrious career to end. And they nearly did it.
Rose Lavelle, who had been limited on the field for OL Reign this season herself due to injuries, showed on the league's brightest stage that she very much is a magician and put the team on her back to try and bring home their first NWSL Championship.
An opening goal by Gotham's Lynn Williams was answered quickly by Lavelle; however, in stoppage time of the first half, a mistake on set piece defense gave Gotham a second goal off the head of Esther González, which turned out to be the eventual match-winner.
While OL Reign had a literal last-minute lifeline to possibly get an equalizing goal and force extra time against a Gotham side reduced to ten players because of a red card, the magic in the San Diego evening air on Saturday night belonged to Gotham as they got the better of OL Reign, 2 to 1.
The ugly stat now is the Reign are 0 for 3 in NWSL Championship matches.
WHAT WORKED: RESILIENCY
OL Reign faced early adversity when Megan Rapinoe went down with an apparent achilles injury. Bethany Balcer subbed on, but the team looked a bit rattled. However, they were able to gather themselves after conceding the first goal and pulled even when Rose Lavelle scored on a break away. The team created more chances, and were evenly matched for long stretches of the match, with several big chances that just missed.
WHAT WORKED: ROSE LAVELLE SHOWED UP, SHOWED OUT
It’s been an injury riddled season for Lavelle, limiting her to just a handful of games in 2023 for club. Saturday's final was the longest she played in a game since March, and she took the opportunity to remind a national audience of just how talented she is. Not only did she score OL Reign’s lone goal, she was arguably the best player on the field, slicing through the Gotham defense with the agility and on the ball skill that has made her one of the most exciting players in the world. If Lavelle is healthy, this team always has a chance to win.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: CHECKING GOTHAM'S RUNNERS ON THE FIRST GOAL
Gotham opened the scoring in the 24th minute when Midge Purce (who would go on to win NWSL Championship MVP honors) found Lynn Williams in the box to tap in the goal. With every Reign defender watching where Purce was going with the ball, it allowed for Gotham to have trailing runners sneak in behind Reign's line and strike first.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: SET PIECE DEFENSE
The second and decisive Gotham goal came on a corner kick in first half stoppage time. Esther was left unmarked in the box and headed it into the net, leaving no chance for the goalkeeper Claudia Dickey. It was one of the few mistakes for the Reign in the game, but in the sport of football, that is sometimes all it takes. The Reign also struggled to convert on their own set-piece chances through the match.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: INJURIES
Going into the final, OL Reign boasted an availability report with no players out. But in just the fourth minute of the match, Megan Rapinoe went down with a non-contact injury, and it was evident almost immediately that she could not continue. Injuries are always devastating, but the injury to Rapinoe, in her last match, was particularly rough on the Reign, who were not only affected emotionally, but also affected in what they wanted to do tactically. The air went out of the stadium in San Diego with the knowledge that no one would get the exact game they wanted.
"We didn’t get that tonight."
After the match, OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey talked about how in the quarterfinal and semifinal matches, the Reign got a bit of that luck that really you need in win-or-go-home games. In those two previous rounds, it was forward Veronica Latsko working hard and being in the right place, right time. While Latsko had a one-on-one moment in the match that could have given OL Reign their second goal to tie up the game, it just didn't work out like that this time.
“I just think in big games like this, you turn up and you need a little bit of luck. We got that last week with Veronica’s goal. We didn’t get that tonight." Harvey said of the game.
"I think the Reign are in a really good spot."
As last night was the end of Megan Rapinoe's illustrious career, she was asked in the post-game press conference what message she had for her OL Reign teammates, namely the younger players on the team as Rose Lavelle and company can be the next generation of leaders for the club.
"I don’t need to tell them much. You saw her tonight, she was incredible. I think the Reign is in a really good spot, with a really good mix of players around Rose’s age and a good crop of young players," said Rapinoe.
OL Reign now turn to a busy offseason that includes a final sell of the club, an Expansion Draft, and the Entry Draft. Stay alert by following us at Ride of the Valkyries for all of your OL Reign off-season news, and thank you for your support.