At the start of last week, the mood at Gotham FC was celebratory as the team prepared to bring Carli Lloyd, a Delran native, back to the Philadelphia area for Wednesday’s game against the Washington Spirit.
Then came The Athletic’s report on now-terminated North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley’s alleged sexual misconduct. (Riley also previously coached the Philadelphia Independence). The report further brought to light allegations that the NWSL systemically failed to listen to and protect players who tried to report Riley’s behavior.
The league suspended last weekend’s games at the players’ request, commissioner Lisa Baird and chief counsel Lisa Levine resigned, and FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation launched investigations — the latter led by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates.
Emotions across the NWSL are still high and raw, and will remain so for some time. As the NWSL Players Association said in a statement Tuesday morning: “We acknowledge that we will not process the pain of the last several days in one weekend or one week … Today, we stand with Mana [Shim], Sinead [Farrelly], and Kaiya [McCullough] as they continue to tell their stories. We have made the decision to proceed with Wednesday night’s scheduled competition, but our demands will be forthcoming.”
Coincidentally, the first game back on the field will be Gotham-Washington at Subaru Park (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network). Just under 10,000 tickets have been sold, three times bigger than Gotham’s average attendance at Red Bull Arena this year and higher than the average attendances of every team in the league but the Portland Thorns.
There will be a postgame ceremony on the field to honor Lloyd, with her family taking part.
“I’m honored to play in front of my hometown fans one last time,” Lloyd told The Inquirer on Tuesday. “I’m trying to enjoy this moment with my teammates, family and friends and appreciate everything this sport has given me. At the same time, we cannot ignore what’s happened this past week.”
She continued: “We need to speak out and demand better for ourselves and the generations after us. They deserve it. We all deserve it.”
A last piece of history
This game is more than just a homecoming and tribute to Lloyd’s career. It will be her first-ever professional club game at a Philadelphia-area pro sports venue.
Though Lloyd has played at Subaru Park and Lincoln Financial Field numerous times with the U.S. national team, the closest she has come to playing a club game here is Rutgers’ Yurcak Field. Sky Blue FC, the former name of Gotham FC, played at Lloyd’s alma mater from 2009-19.
In the Women’s Professional Soccer era, Lloyd never played for the Independence, and missed all of her teams’ games in Philadelphia due to a combination of U.S. women’s national team duty, an injury, and a suspension. Now, a decade after WPS folded, Lloyd will finally get to do one of the few things she hasn’t done in her decorated career.
In an interview with The Inquirer last week, Lloyd said the idea of moving a Gotham game to Subaru Park to honor her was first floated around a year ago by Alyse LaHue, the club’s then-general manager.
Lloyd admitted she told LaHue that it was “way too far in advance to make a decision — that’d be great if we play in the Philly area, but I had no plans of retirement or anything set.”
But the idea remained on the table through LaHue’s firing in July amid a reported claim under the NWSL’s anti-harassment policy. Interim GM Yael Averbuch, who played for Sky Blue in the WPS era, got the game over the finish line.
“Every game that I complete now has a little bit more of an emotional feel because I know I’m getting closer to the end,” Lloyd said in an interview last week before The Athletic’s story was published. “Obviously, playing at Red Bull Arena has been fantastic, and I’ve had friends and family coming out to those games and the fans have been amazing. But there’s going to be something really special about this particular area, Subaru Park, right in Chester across the [Commodore Barry] bridge.”
‘Honored to be a role model’
Lloyd will have a lot of family members and friends in the crowd, including from the Medford Strikers youth team she played for as a kid. And she knows many current youth players who look up to her will be in the stands too.
“I was a little girl once, and looking up to the ‘99 World Cup team, and being able to be in attendance during one of those World Cup matches at Giants Stadium [in East Rutherford, N.J.], and just seeing a packed stadium, all the fans and faces that were painted in red, white and blue,” Lloyd said. “Now I’m in that position where there’s loads of people that are looking up to me, and, you know, I feel honored to be able to be a role model, to be an inspiration. … I hope that my story can continue to resonate with people to never give up, and to have big, bold dreams, and to know that if you put your mind to anything, and you work extremely hard, that you can achieve anything you want in life.”
It will be the next-to-last, regular-season “home” game of Lloyd’s career. The finale is set for Oct. 31 at Red Bull Arena against Racing Louisville, with the playoffs to start the following weekend. (Her last U.S. national team game will be Oct. 26 against South Korea at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn.)
“Pretty grateful for this opportunity,” Lloyd said. “I think a lot of the players are really excited about it, some of them being from South Jersey and having a connection in the Philly/South Jersey area. So to have had the NWSL, Gotham FC and Philadelphia Union kind of put all of this together on somewhat of a short timeline is pretty awesome.”
Lloyd is one of six Gotham players who have ties to the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Defender Erica Skroski is from Galloway Township, N.J.; defender Gina Lewandowski is from Coopersburg, Pa.; midfielder Kenie Wright is from Mount Laurel, N.J.; midfielder Nicole Baxter is from Pennington, N.J., in Mercer County, and played for a youth soccer team in Bucks County; and defender Estelle Johnson played for the Independence.
In fact, Johnson played in the last club women’s soccer game to take place at Subaru Park: a 2011 WPS playoff semifinal against Boca Raton, Fla.-based MagicJack SC. That was the only game the Independence played at the venue. If she plays in this game, and she probably will, she’ll earn the unique distinction of being the only player to date to have played in consecutive pro women’s club games on that field.