NJ/NY Gotham FC’s rise from the worst team in the NWSL last season to a semifinalist a year later comes on the back of a tactical evolution led by head coach Juan Carlos Amoros, who preaches a quick, attack-minded approach from his players. Few have embraced the task like Jenna Nighswonger, one of the league’s rookie of the year nominees.
Nighswonger was drafted out of Florida State as a forward, and seemed poised to be an option on the front line alongside the likes of Lynn Williams and Midge Purce. Instead, she is making a name for herself as a fullback and has been a mainstay on the field in a newfound role. She has played 21 games for Gotham this season, including a start in the team’s 2-0 win over the North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals.
It helps that her tactical preferences suit the fullback role Amoros has assigned to her. The position comes with plenty of attacking responsibilities, as was the case in the game against the Courage — fullbacks Nighswonger and Bruninha were oftentimes the ones to kickstart the offensive plan on the wings, and enjoyed success doing so that day.
“I think I just like to play my position more attacking,” she said in a press conference on Thursday. “I think I do see myself more as an attacking mid player but I am now a left back. I think just taking what I used to do in the attack and use my vision just to play a new position. We talk a lot about how it’s just a role on the field and we try to do a lot of different rotations and things so I don’t really feel like I’m just a left back, which I like. Sometimes I can play the 10, the 11. I think that’s definitely been helpful.”
Nighswonger said that she is still working on the defensive side of the game, but thankfully has the support of teammates as she aims to get acclimated to that aspect of her new role.
“I think the hardest part in that area is just understanding, defensively, the tactics and everything so I think to the point I made about Ali Krieger and Michelle Betos, they’ve been so helpful in giving me confidence in that area but I think that’s something that can definitely continue to grow.”
Both sides of her game will come in handy on Sunday, when the team takes on the Portland Thorns for a spot in the championship. Gotham arrived in the Pacific Northwest four days before the match to acclimate ahead of the biggest game in the team’s NWSL history.
“I’ve been told for every hour of time change, it’s that many days to adjust,” she said. “I think it’s a great advantage. Players coming back from international duty, it’s been a lot of traveling for them so I’m happy that we could all just meet in one place and be able to train a few extra days but I think it definitely helps our legs as well.”
The Thorns are the favorites after scoring 42 goals during the regular season, the most of any NWSL team in 2023. Nighswonger and company will need to be at their best in the back, but will have openings going forward — the reigning champions also conceded 32 goals during that stretch, more than any other team in the playoffs.
That vulnerability in the back could allow Gotham and Nighswonger to showcase their strengths, which ties into the team’s messaging to prioritize themselves ahead of the matchup.
“I think we’re not trying to focus too much on the other opponent, more focusing on ourselves,” Nighswonger said. “Just knowing that if we’re controlling what we can control, we can give Portland a good game but we can’t worry too much about the opponent or anything. We have to focus on ourselves.”