Gotham FC opens championship defense to large, dignitary-filled crowd for Challenge Cup loss

The stage was set.

As Gotham FC began its much-anticipated 2024 NWSL campaign in the Challenge Cup on Friday night as defending league champions with a flashy new roster, the fireworks were lit and the confetti cannons were loaded.

The stars were aligned, even if they didn’t all make it onto the pitch, and dignitaries were on hand.

Margaret Purce of NJ/NY Gotham FC and Jaedyn Shaw of San Diego Wave FC challenge for the ball during the second half at Red Bull Arena on Friday night. Getty Images

The stands were mostly filled with a nearly record crowd for a Gotham home game at Red Bull Arena.

Except there’s that pesky old thing called the scoreboard.

It was instead the San Diego Wave raising the trophy on the dais after a 1-0 victory on an 88th-minute header by Alex Morgan.

“It’s really a special place to be,” said Gotham newcomer Crystal Dunn, a Long Island native making her homecoming, “and just, I wish the game went a different way.”

Attendance was announced at 14,241 — the second-highest on record for a Gotham FC match at Red Bull Arena.

The lower bowl was mostly full, along with a few sections upstairs, and the crowd was engaged throughout.

“Tonight was special,” longtime Gotham forward Midge Purce said. “I have so much respect, and I’m really humbled by the outpouring of support because it wasn’t just a normal crowd. They were into it. They understood what was going on. When the yellows weren’t good, the crowd wasn’t happy. So it’s heartening to see everybody come out.”

U.S. second gentleman Doug Emhoff lights the torch before the 2024 NWSL Challenge Cup between NJ/NY Gotham FC and the San Diego Wave FC at Red Bull Arena Friday night. Getty Images

The spectators included Tim Howard, the New Jersey goalkeeping legend.

Giants coach Brian Daboll was in attendance, representing that other kind of football.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff was there, too, representing political football.

Before the game, he lit Gotham’s ceremonial cauldron.

Savannah McCaskill #21 of San Diego Wave FC and Kelley O’Hara #5 of NJ/NY Gotham FC chase the ball during the first half at Red Bull Arena on March 15, 2024 in Harrison, New Jersey. Getty Images

If they came to see all of Gotham’s new stars light it up, this was more of a Little Dipper kind of night.

Rose Lavelle and Lynn Williams didn’t dress, taking additional time to recover from the previous weeks’ Gold Cup tournament.

Dunn, Emily Sonnett and Jenna Nighswonger started on the bench, as did San Diego’s Morgan.

Gotham generated the bulk of the promising chances through much of the night with nothing to show for it while new goalkeeper Cassie Miller made a pair of saves on San Diego starlet Jaedyn Shaw to keep things scoreless until Morgan — in a reminder of who the biggest star in the building really was — came through.

Alex Morgan of San Diego Wave FC poses with her MVP trophy and the 2024 NWSL Challenge Cup at Red Bull Arena on Friday night. Getty Images

“I think there’s a lot to build off of, but at the end of the day, you know, 12 shots, two on frame, that’s bad,” Purce said. “The name of the game is scoring, and we didn’t do that.”

Gotham had only this as consolation: At least it didn’t count in the standings.

“I was surprised by how well we gelled together on the field, to be quite honest,” Purce said. “For that to be our first display in terms of what the footy looked like, it’s really exciting, and it makes me pumped for the rest of the season.”

The Challenge Cup was recast this year as a one-off trophy game between the defending NWSL champions in Gotham and defending Shield winners in San Diego.

The Challenge Cup was born in 2020 as a tournament to replace the regular season, marking the return of American pro sports with the country in the throes of the COVID pandemic.

It was a preseason tournament in 2021 and 2022 then became an in-season tournament in 2023.

San Diego’s players received $3,500 in prize money with Morgan bagging an additional $2,000 as MVP. Gotham players received $2,200 apiece.

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