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Freya Coombe’s exit from Gotham FC upends what had been a strong NWSL season

Coombe's departure to expansion team Angel City was full of controversy. "It’s been an emotional roller coaster," says captain McCall Zerboni.

Departing Gotham FC manager Freya Coombe, center, got a postgame hug from Ifeoma Onumonu after Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Orlando Pride at Red Bull Arena.
Departing Gotham FC manager Freya Coombe, center, got a postgame hug from Ifeoma Onumonu after Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Orlando Pride at Red Bull Arena.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

HARRISON, N.J. — If you’re the kind of soccer fan who went to Red Bull Arena on Sunday not caring that it was Gotham FC manager Freya Coombe’s last game — if, say, you were in the horde of fans seeking attention from visiting Orlando Pride star Ashlyn Harris — you might have been entertained.

But if you showed up caring quite a bit about Coombe’s midseason departure to expansion team Angel City FC, you likely were not entertained. And not just because Gotham’s 1-0 loss ran its winless streak to six games.

It was hard to get past the fact that on paper, the team was not going to have a manager the next day. Not even an interim one. As of when this story was published online, interim general manager Yael Averbuch West (and we’ll get to that title in a moment) had yet to announce an interim boss.

Several sources have told The Inquirer that Coombe’s successor will be named early this week. But the manner of Coombe’s departure is still a problem for a team that has suffered so many black eyes over the years, and for a league that too often has tripped over small things.

» READ MORE: International Champions Cup shows how NWSL teams can grow their ambitions

According to Equalizer Soccer, Coombe’s contract was to expire at the end of this year. Angel City asked Averbuch’s predecessor, Alyse LaHue, early in the summer for permission to talk to Coombe about becoming the Los Angeles team’s inaugural boss.

But in early July, LaHue was fired amid an NWSL investigation of a harassment complaint.

A few weeks later, Gotham’s ownership — including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy — hired West in the GM role. The New Jersey native, who started her pro career at Sky Blue FC and was the NWSL Players Association’s executive director in 2019, did not have much time to settle in.

Fans frustrated

Coombe was initially going to stay at Gotham for the rest of the season. Such arrangements are common in European soccer, and also have parallels in the NFL.

But European managers don’t end their tenures coaching players whom they could pick in their new team’s expansion draft. So it was no surprise that Gotham’s Cloud 9 supporters’ club was one of many voices calling out a conflict of interest in Coombe’s staying.

On Tuesday, West said on Twitter that Coombe would leave after Sunday’s game.

“I want to thank Coach Coombe for her outstanding two-and-a-half years of service with Gotham FC,” Tammy Murphy said in a statement to The Inquirer. “She has led us to increased success on the field and helped us develop a strong, gritty culture representative of our communities. We will miss her and wish her nothing but success in Los Angeles, except when she plays us.”

» READ MORE: Why the U.S. women's soccer team shouldn't fire Vlatko Andonovski

While the announcement of Coombe’s successor is coming soon, the emotions at play might last.

“What we’ve always wanted is stability, and obviously this year we haven’t had that,” Cloud 9 leader Jen Muller said. “We thought we had it, and you kind of get the rug pulled out from under you.”

She’s one of many people around the NWSL who are frustrated by the league’s lack of transparency. We know little about why LaHue was fired, and given how many lawyers are involved, that likely won’t change for a while. We don’t know if Angel City’s approach to Coombe counted as tampering, or if it was above board since her contract was expiring.

“What’s good for European leagues isn’t good for the NWSL or MLS,” Muller said. “I think that’s why a lot of us were [annoyed].”

(If you guessed that Muller said something stronger than annoyed, you’re right.)

During the game, Coombe showed no signs of it being her finale on the Gotham sideline. But afterward, a full-team huddle was followed by a series of embraces with players.

“When the final whistle went and we had that huddle for the last time, it was very sad, actually,” Coombe said. “It was never an easy decision to leave. It was one of the hardest moments and the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life, not just my career, and I’m certainly going to miss my time here.”

Players holding firm

The strongest words on the night came from Gotham’s captain, midfielder McCall Zerboni. Long one of the league’s best speakers, she didn’t hold back on the state of the locker room.

“I want to be transparent: It’s been really, really difficult,” Zerboni said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster, and it’s been a very uneven environment off the field. And we’re all just trying to navigate it and figure it out, and deal with the news, and deal with the anxiety of what’s to come and the changes that we’re going through.”

Zerboni emphasized the locker room’s strong chemistry, and other Gotham players have done the same. If that chemistry can hold up — and get a boost from star attacker Margaret Purce’s return from a quadriceps injury — the team has a fair chance of earning its first playoff berth in eight years.

» READ MORE: USWNT and Gotham star Carli Lloyd will retire this fall after a 16-year career

“It’s us out on the field and nobody else,” veteran centerback Estelle Johnson said after last Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at powerhouse Portland. “Although there’s a lot going on around us, I think that’s the biggest message that we’re passing around to each other. It’s about us, it always has been about us, and we’ve just got to keep this train rolling.”

Zerboni’s words brought to mind a related metaphor: light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s important to invest in the club and invest in the people around us, and I do have big faith and big trust that [the manager] decision will be the right one,” she said. “Change takes time, but the more it is the right person for the job … the faster we’ll get this thing together.”