How Yael Averbuch West came home, realized what mattered and kicked off the remaking of Gotham FC

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Yael Averbuch West has always had goals.

It’s with the same assuredness she once practiced her aim to be the best women’s soccer player in the world that she now looks you in the eye and shares her lofty ambition to make NJ/NY Gotham FC — the hometown team she helped transform from laughingstock to the champions of the National Women’s Soccer League — into the world standard in the sport.

“What we’re saying now, which it took a little bit of time to establish and I was actually embarrassed to say when we first came up with it, is that we want to be the global capital of women’s soccer,” Averbuch West said in a recent sitdown with The Post. “I don’t like doing little things. I don’t like doing local things. I really feel passionate about that. 

“The fact that our vision is so big has made me additionally excited about something I kind of reluctantly started and I do love.”

Blue-sky plans and a natural aversion to half-measures were all Averbuch West had to work with after she was convinced to join Gotham as interim general manager at a moment of crisis for the club in 2021.

The former United States women’s national team player was then three years removed from her final game, since a flareup of an intestinal condition left her too debilitated to continue what had turned out to be a torturous professional playing career.

She had moved her family back to her beloved home turf in North Jersey, and remade herself as a union leader and entrepreneur. The GM job wasn’t an undertaking she had pursued or even necessarily wanted.

“I was really reluctant to get back involved in the league after being a player because it took a lot out of me, physically, mentally, in every sense,” Averbuch West said. “But this has always been my hometown club, and I was kind of intrigued by it. And I literally did the GPS and the training facility is, you know, 23 minutes away. And I was like, ‘I guess I can do this.’” 

Yael Averbuch West became Gotham FC’s general manager in 2021. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Today, less than three years into her tenure, Gotham — which begins its 2024 season Friday night in the Challenge Cup against the San Diego Wave at Red Bull Arena — is winning hardware, luring internationally famous free agents and representing the vanguard of an evolved version of the NWSL.

“The best way to capture it is she wants to build a club that she wishes she had,” former Gotham assistant general manager Nathán Goldberg Crenier said.

Averbuch West, 37, is a proud daughter of Montclair, N.J., where she grew up under posters of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain on her bedroom wall and two blocks from a school yard where as a kid she would spend afternoons and weekends with her younger sister, Shira, in improvised soccer drills.

Yael orchestrated a game in which the sisters had to volley the ball to each other off a wall 25 times in a row without letting it drop.

“We kept dropping it at like 22, 23, and she would not let us leave,” Shira remembers with a smile. “It was getting dark. I was crying. But we couldn’t leave until we got to 25.”

Yael’s father ordered instructional VHS tapes and subscribed to a proto-streaming service to watch Serie A games from Italy, in service of cultivating her goal — also posted in writing on the bedroom wall — to reach the top of the sport.

“It was somehow a natural conclusion to me that I should try to be the best soccer player in the world,” Averbuch West said. “Which is not a normal thought process as a 9-year-old, I now realize. I play soccer. Why would I not try to do it [to be] the best of the best?”

Yael Averbuch plays with the U.S. women’s national team in 2013. Getty Images

Averbuch West says her time with her youth team, World Class, is when she really fell in love with the game and was exposed to what she now describes as a unique pocket of American soccer culture combining people from diverse backgrounds with “the expectation of excellence.” 

“Literally, the Gotham team trains in some of the indoor spots that we used to go when we were 12,” Shira said. “Like if anyone’s going to do that, it’s going to be Yael. She not only loves New York, New Jersey and she loves the places we grew up, she’s so nostalgic that, of course, she was going to bring people back to train and to play at the places where we jumped over the fence to get in.”

The legendary Anson Dorrance came to the Averbuch home to recruit Yael to national powerhouse North Carolina, where she went on to win two national championships. 

Those rings wound up in a drawer, Shira said, because Yael was on to the next goal. 

Averbuch West was drafted to New Jersey-based Sky Blue in 2009, and spent three seasons in Women’s Professional Soccer, an NWSL forerunner that shut down after 2011 due to financial instability and mismanagement. She went abroad for two seasons before returning to the nascent NWSL and bouncing from the Washington Spirit to FC Kansas City to the Seattle Reign.

“I think I’ve only been able to admit this to myself recently: I didn’t enjoy my professional playing career,” Averbuch West said. “I had a really tough time. I was always at odds between my expectations for who I wanted to be and what I wanted the experience to be and the reality of what it was. 

“I moved around a lot. I never really established loyalty to a club or felt that from a club. I, until very late in my career, never felt like I really had coaches who particularly believed in me and wanted to help me be better.” She cited Vlatko Andonovski, who coached her in Kansas City and Seattle and went on to coach the USWNT, as an exception. 

Yael Averbuch in action for FC Kansas City against Megan Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign in 2017. Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Averbuch West debuted with the USWNT in 2007 at the age of 20, and existed on the roster bubble, receiving the final of her 26 caps in late 2013. When she was called in, she says, her self-esteem (and social media following) spiked.

“If I wasn’t on the national team, I was making no money,” she said. “I had all my endorsements, just they weren’t interested. Nobody cared who I was. It was just a totally different feeling. I did not feel like a professional athlete.”

In the summer of 2021, Averbuch West — then caring for her newborn daughter, Aria, now 3, and pregnant with her son, Avi, now 2, with her husband, CBS Sports soccer pundit Aaron West — received a visitor on the porch of her new home in Montclair.

Ed Nalbandian, then Gotham’s managing owner, was looking for a new general manager, and had been connected to Averbuch West by Lisa Baird, then the NWSL commissioner. 

The team had recently fired GM Alyse LaHue over, it was later revealed, alleged sexual harassment. That fall, NWSL would be rocked by several reports of other abuses by the league’s head coaches and authority figures.

Nalbandian was drawn to Averbuch West’s résumé as a player and her experience as a founder of the NWSL Players Association (she says her motivation for starting the union was simple: “Can we get a question addressed with the league and not put it on Twitter?”). She also founded Techne Futbol, an app that provides soccer players with personal training programs.

Yael Averbuch West addresses Carli Lloyd after a Gotham FC match in October 2021. Getty Images

He says he knew within 15 minutes she was the right person for the job, and left the meeting feeling confident.

Early the next morning, he found an email in his inbox from Averbuch West. She was suggesting five other candidates for the role. 

But he continued to pitch her, and 10 days later, she signed on. 

“I knew there’d be a learning curve,” Nalbandian said. “But I felt really strongly that this is the person who can lead our club for the next five years or so. And even though it took a little while to get her, I never called a second candidate, I just couldn’t do it.” 

Said Goldberg Crenier, who came aboard the following year and recently departed to become vice president of the U.S. Soccer Federation: “At the moment that the league was going through the turmoil that it was going through and the club was going through that turmoil, saying yes to the job was in and of itself an act of belief in the future of the club, the future of the league. And having someone as well-respected and well-liked kind of put her reputation on the line to build something at Gotham. Any success that the club has under her tenure and after it will have to point back to the moment when she said, ‘Yes, I’ll do this.’”

Bring up the highs of Gotham’s run to the NWSL championship this past fall as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and the subsequent offseason coup to add four marquee free agents, and Averbuch West and those around her have the reflex to look back to the lows.

It was late in the summer of 2022 when Averbuch West felt she had a strong enough handle on the job to begin to enact her strategy for reinventing the team. 

With Gotham en route to a miserable 4-17-1, last-place finish, the team fired coach Scott Parkinson, who had been Averbuch West’s first hire after Freya Coombe bolted for expansion Angel City during the 2021 season.

Gotham FC head coach Juan Carlos Amorós huddles with the team during the 2023 season, which ended with an NWSL championship. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Averbuch West advocated for the hiring of Juan Carlos Amorós, a Spaniard who had spent 10 years with the Tottenham women’s team in England and finished 2022 as interim coach of the NWSL’s Houston Dash. 

Gotham had gone as far as drawing up a contract for another coaching candidate, Nalbandian said, before Averbuch West used her “quiet voice” to convince him Amorós fit her vision for implementing a more aesthetically pleasing, possession-based, attacking style of soccer. 

Then, around the 2023 draft, Averbuch West swung a pair of trades, surrendering the No. 1 pick (pegged as teen phenom Alyssa Thompson) and coming away with eventual Rookie of the Year Jenna Nighswonger, Yazmeen Ryan and veteran USWNT forward Lynn Williams. 

Nalbandian compared the Williams trade to the 1980s Mets adding Keith Hernandez. Averbuch West called it a “statement move.”

“When you bring Lynn Williams on your team, the players know it’s going to be good and that you want to win,” Averbuch West said. “And I even got text messages from players on the team with a lot of exclamation marks and emojis being like, ‘Oh, s–t. We’re trying to win now.’”

Over the course of a week this winter, Averbuch West struck big again, landing USWNT players Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Emily Sonnett and Rose Lavelle in NWSL free agency. 

Gotham did not make the “highest offers,” per Nalbandian, but Averbuch West sold an environment where even these elite talents would be able to improve — the very thing she craved during her playing days. 

Gotham FC head coach Juan Carlos Amorós, Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn and GM Yael Averbuch West at the four free agents’ introductory press conference. Robert Sabo for the NY Post

“It just felt like this was somewhere that I could settle in and be comfortable in,” Lavelle said at the players’ introduction in January, “but it was also going to push me in ways that I probably don’t even know yet. I just felt like it was going to be a really good opportunity for growth and development in every realm of my life.”

“Just being parochial about it, having a general manager that had sort of extreme success and then a lot of frustration, I think is really good,” Nalbandian said. “She has just an incredible ability to connect with all the players, whether they’re superstars, which she sort of was at one point, or they’re maybe struggling a little bit and not hitting their goals, which certainly happened to her as well.” 

Averbuch West’s most painful struggle came with ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition defined by inflammation in the colon. Or, as Averbuch West puts it with her trademark frankness, a “very uncomfortable and shameful illness where you need to use the bathroom urgently and frequently.”

She had lived with the condition for years before it flared up in 2016. After she played her first game of the 2018 season, a full 90 minutes at that, her health had deteriorated to the point that she was bedridden at her in-season home in Seattle, too unwell to even fly back to New Jersey. Her mother and sister flew across the country to tend to her. 

“I think my body knew that my mind would never let me out of playing professionally quite honestly,” Averbuch West said, “and I think it just took me out like I couldn’t even consider it.” 

In November, Averbuch West underwent a colectomy, the first of three planned surgeries. It has changed her life.

“I no longer have ulcerative colitis, I literally don’t even have a colon, so everyone can know that, that’s great,” Averbuch West said with a chuckle. “I realize now how drastically it had changed my life. I couldn’t travel with the team at all. I couldn’t share a car with somebody. I couldn’t enjoy a coffee and actually pay attention to what someone was saying to me. Because I was so constantly aware of what was going on with my body. Did I need to use the restroom? Was I uncomfortable?”

Yael Averbuch West endured a battle with ulcerative colitis, a debilitating inflammatory condition. Tamara Beckwith/New York Post

The candor with which Averbuch West discusses the ravages of her body dovetails with the transparency she strives to bring to the sometimes harsh business of building and editing a roster.

“I’ve never managed a budget, I’ve never done many of the other things, but I have lived what they’re living and I have a profound respect for what it means in their lives and how it’s not like any other job,” Averbuch West said.

Added Goldberg Crenier, “It doesn’t make the conversations easier, but Yael always knows how to relate to players and the right words to say the things that are hard to say.” 

With that empathy and with an emphasis on a fun-to-play and fun-to-watch brand of soccer, by introducing more advanced analytics into scouting and personnel decisions and by empowering a coaching staff to develop players, Averbuch West has helped usher in the modern NWSL. The kind of NWSL she would have liked to play in.

“She’s redefined the role of general manager and she’s on her way to being a GOAT,” Nalbandian said. “You know, she’s Michael Jordan in the early ’90s.”

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