NWSL Championship: How to watch, key players, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger’s final game

Media day before the NWSL Championship is always a long, slightly chaotic time. Players sit in pairs, fielding questions left and right, trying to sum up the entirety of a season in a short window — knowing they could never quite capture the long journey to reach that moment. Head coach Laura Harvey, however, did so this year by saying “Rumor Has It” by Adele is the song that described her team’s season ahead of OL Reign’s championship meeting with Gotham FC on Saturday.

Neither Reign nor Gotham finished as one of the top two seeds in the regular season, requiring both to win quarter- and semifinal games. Both teams are also motivated, in part, by their retiring stars: Megan Rapinoe for the Reign, and Ali Krieger for Gotham. This final also has the promise of an excellent coaching battle between one of the league’s originals in Harvey and the 2023 coach of the year, Juan Carlos Amorós.

The NWSL has already surpassed the league’s record for ticket sales at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, announcing on Thursday that they’ve crossed 22,000 tickets sold. And with Rapinoe and Krieger providing a helpful narrative for neutrals, that number could rise even further.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Saturday’s match, with insights and quotes from media day.

How to Watch

Starting with the basics, the game is set for Saturday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

In fact, CBS will broadcast the next four championships in primetime and make them available to stream on Paramount+, following the new NWSL media rights deal announced Thursday. The agreement, which begins in 2024, includes sharing games between ESPN, CBS Sports, Prime Video and Scripps Sports.

While international rights for the next four years are still being worked on, viewers abroad will be able to watch this year’s final via the league website.

U.S. viewers can watch coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Golazo network with a full two hours of lead-in coverage: an hour-long episode of Attacking Third followed by the pregame show, before shifting to CBS at 7:30. The game and the half-hour pregame show on CBS will also be mirrored on Paramount+ for cord cutters.

OL Reign: Finding a groove

Vibe check: The Reign is the team with the postseason legacy. They have two back-to-back NWSL Shield wins in 2014 and 2015, followed by two championship losses to FC Kansas City and a run of unsuccessful semifinals, including last year’s heartbreak at the hands of the Kansas City Current. It’s the final season of the OG three still playing together: Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock.

“I think the Reign isn’t the Reign without those four,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said about the three players and Harvey, who have been with the team since its inception. “I think we all want to do it for them to be able to kind of do the thing, the one thing that the club hasn’t been able to get.”

Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes have been with the Reign since the beginning. (Photo by Steven Bisig, USA TODAY Sports.)

This year hasn’t exactly been an easy season for the team, either, coming back from the World Cup break without a win in August and needing to turn it on to make the playoffs. There are off-the-field factors as well. The team was suddenly put up for sale mid-season with Michele Kang’s takeover of Lyon’s women’s program in France still pending. But through the uncertainty, there’s been a new NWSL record attendance and glimmers of the full potential of this Reign roster. They’ve finally found their groove over the past few weeks, and if they keep their semifinal form it should absolutely be a tough task for Gotham to break them down.

Player to watch: While Veronica Latsko has come through with some massive goals (intentional or not) through the playoffs, Emily Sonnett is crucial to the Reign’s game plan.

“Defensively, she cleans things up so calmly and cleanly. Just swoops in and saves the day, and then is able to maintain possession and kickstart our attack,” Lavelle said of her teammate.

It’s a tall ask for a single player, but a good holding midfielder tends to be the best player on the field while also the most invisible. Sonnet’s been that player for the Reign. If we’re not talking about her on Saturday, she’s doing her job.

What they’re saying: “We have players in our team who have been in really big moments now, that we didn’t have that in 2015 and 2014. (Rapinoe) had been in and around but hadn’t had a ton of success. (Fishlock) hadn’t got all the Champions League finals under her belt at that point. We’ve got a lot of experience now. Sonnet’s been there. Sonnet’s the most experienced in the team in these moments. So how can we lean on that? I think that’s going to be a big, big important thing.” — Laura Harvey

“I actually think a lot of people still underrate Laura Harvey as a coach anyway, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I don’t understand what else she needs to do…. She’s been super successful here for a very long time. And that’s not easy, to be consistently successful in the NWSL. It’s really hard. Really, really hard.” — Jess Fishlock

NJ/NY Gotham FC: From worst to first, but not really

Vibe check: Last week, Gotham proved it’s passing the vibe check. (A Gotham staffer joked on Thursday that this team is simply “vibes.”) One of the striking things about talking to Gotham players was the way they talked about the relationships between the players on this team, the trust they have in each other and how they hold each other accountable. They have an unshakeable faith in their own abilities that results in a confidence that doesn’t feel cocky — remarkable for the team that squeaked into the playoffs thanks to goal differential.

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Gotham FC celebrates after defeating Portland Thorns in the NWSL semifinal. (Troy Wayrynen, USA TODAY Sports)

Katie Stengel was the hero in the semifinal against Portland, but many players on Thursday pointed to their upset of the league’s reigning champs as another sign that they belonged on the NWSL’s biggest stage.

And it’s not that Gotham hasn’t had its own share of adversity this season — every team will feel their own respective challenges more strongly — but the club has shown the importance of increased investment into the sporting side, and how it’s immediately paid off. Worst to first has always been a possibility in this league, but it feels particularly fitting for Gotham to potentially be the team to stick the landing in the championship setting.

Player to watch: This might feel very obvious in the wake of her various awards, but rookie of the year Jenna Nighswonger is very important to Gotham in both defense and attack. Gotham likes to run a lot of its attacking through Nighswonger in a wingback role, and she’ll also be crucial in helping to stifle the Reign’s Latsko and Sofia Huerta, who have proven to be an effective right-side pairing. Nighswonger’s ability to get high and deliver crosses, or to drift narrow and ping a shot of her own at distance is a big part of Gotham’s arsenal, and of its ability to exhaust teams with its pressing. It’s a style that multiple players across this season have described as challenging to execute, but they’ve reaped the rewards, and have praised head coach Juan Carlos Amorós and head of tactical analysis Jesús Botello Hermosa for being clear in defining players’ responsibilities.

What they’re saying: “We jokingly say from worst to first. But I don’t think we ever really looked at ourselves as the worst. We just know. and have known, that we can do it. And I think for there to be this redemptive tone, we would have to really be trying to bounce back from something but this is a new group. It’s a new coaching staff. It’s completely new. So we more feel like we have nothing to lose and something to prove.” — Midge Purce

“I feel like we have that much more push and extra motivation going into it because we have nothing to lose. We are the underdogs.” — Yazmeen Ryan, midfielder

(Photos of Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger: Steph Chambers, L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

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