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After unprecedented NWSL free agent sweep, Gotham begin superteam era: ‘Nothing’s given, everything’s earned’

NEW YORK — A few short months after winning their first NWSL championship, NJ/NY Gotham FC were taking another victory lap. Instead of celebrating an on-field triumph, the club instead took to Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room on Friday to mark their unprecedented free agency business and formally introduce their new star-studded quartet — U.S. women’s national team stars Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett.

The swanky unveiling was months in the making, as Gotham identified the Women’s World Cup winners as prospective recruits before the free agency list dropped in September. While the reigning champions orchestrated one of the most impressive offseasons in the NWSL’s history, one thing became fairly clear as the new signings made their first appearance in Gotham colors — they were just as surprised as the rest of us.

“You start hearing things. ‘Who? Who?,'” Sonnett said about the murmurs she heard before she signed, and then made a reserved but flattering remark. “That sounds cool.”

Davidson mixed in sarcasm while clearly complimenting her new team’s ambitions. Upon hearing who might join her, she thought, “That’s not half bad.”

The surprise each of them experienced feels representative of the free agency experience, which is just in its second year in the NWSL. Though each player enjoyed the autonomy that came with being a free agent, each took incredibly individualized approaches — and came out of it with different takeaways. Take Sonnett, for example, who was acutely aware of the newness of NWSL free agency and for perhaps the first time in her career, had the chance to find a team that fit her. She ultimately described the process as a “blessing and a curse.”

“[I] recogniz[ed] this might be my last time being maybe a most wanted free agent, just understanding age and all that,” the 30-year-old said. “I think I was traded without a say last time, so understanding it’s nice to have that autonomy and being able to go through financially, are you close to family, different things like that. … I didn’t think it was going to be a long process and the back-and-forth was kind of insane. It was a really hard decision and pros and cons were just all over the place.”

She ultimately selected Gotham because they provided the “best, full package for Emily Sonnett.” It included a move from Seattle to the New York metropolitan area, which is closer to her family in Georgia, and the on-field vision that the club continues to successfully sell.

“I think understanding how strong their roster is, first and foremost, the players they have and playing with those players” was key for Sonnett. “Understanding [general manager] Yael [Averbuch West], in the multiple conversations that I had, and the hunger that you can see with how she speaks about the organization, her plan — five, 10 year — I think was something that really stuck with me. There was a shift. I was like, ‘I want to talk to her again. I want to understand a little bit more,’ and then talking to [head coach] Juan [Carlos Amoros], obviously the on-field vision and I think how his style can really complement international play, but also putting a good brand of soccer, winning mentality.”

Lavelle, Sonnett’s friend and teammate at the Seattle Reign last season, echoed the sentiment also felt by Dunn and Davidson.

“It just felt like a really good fit in every aspect — on the field with soccer, off the field with soccer, off the field without soccer,” she said. “It just felt like this was somewhere where I could settle in and be comfortable in, but it was also going to push me in ways that I probably don’t even know yet but I’m excited to see. I just felt like it’s going to be a good opportunity for development in every realm of my life.”

Though Gotham managed to convince each individual of the same thing, the club’s free agency strategy is awfully similar to the players’ in that there’s a bespoke quality to it. In addition to selling each player on the club’s overall vision, reigning coach of the year Amoros and his staff tailored their pitch to the player.

“When it comes to the football side, I talk to them about certain things and then Jesus [Botello Hermosa], our assistant coach, also prepares a little bit of a video for players to see,” Amoros said. “What maybe makes us different is that we not only talk to them about how good they are and how they can help the team but also things that we think we can help them to be better. I think that’s very important for a player to hear that.”

There’s something to be said about the fact that everyone aligned on the same vision at the same time without discussing it with each other, despite the longstanding familiarity they have. Sonnett said she spoke to Lavelle to “debrief” during the free agency experience, but Lavelle said they did not make the decision in tandem.

“It was a separate decision,” Lavelle said, “but it was perfect that we both ended up in the same place.”

As someone who did not lean on her fellow players during the free agency process, Davidson felt a sense of validation as the news broke that three other USWNT stars would join her at Gotham.

“I actually didn’t know any of them were coming here when I decided that I wanted to come to Gotham, so I think it speaks volumes to how this team is set up and how they sell themselves to players,” she said. “I think it’s really something people want to buy into and want to be a part of.”

As preseason rapidly approaches, though, each one of Gotahm’s new signings recognizes that their new superteam status means there are plenty of expectations to live up to. Davidson said the group is excited to bring more attention to the team as they aim to defend their championship, while Lavelle was quick to admit that the work has not actually begun just yet.

“I think it’s always exciting to be on a team full of a lot of great players,” Lavelle said. “It’s an amazing roster before we even got here and I think we’re excited to add to that but I think nothing’s given, everything’s earned.”

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