NEW YORK -- Esther Gonzalez received a welcome fit for the only current Women's World Cup winner in the NWSL. The NJ/NY Gotham FC forward was formally introduced to her new metropolitan area at Mercado Little Spain, the Manhattan food hub described as a love letter to the European nation by chef Jose Andres, on Thursday night. The event marked the latest major moment in a whirlwind month for Gonzalez, and served as the latest notice of a seismic shift in women's soccer.
Less than a month ago, Gonzalez was in Sydney, Australia collecting her winner's medal as a member of the Spain team that won their first-ever Women's World Cup. Spain's victory officially ended the United States women's national team's eight-year reign as world champions, and the NWSL's spell as the full-time home of the World Cup-winning players. It also feels like the unofficial start of a new era for the women's game -- a handful of national teams and leagues can make their case as the world's best, and will try to stake their claim any chance they get.
While most of Gonzalez's Spain teammates continue to play club soccer in their home nation, she opted to leave Real Madrid for Gotham just a few days after winning the World Cup. It's a significant choice considering the rising prominence of women's soccer in Europe, and indicates that the U.S. remains a destination in the sport despite recent shortcomings.
"When the chance came for me to decide where I wanted to choose to go, for me it was very clear that I wanted to come here," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "Now that I've been here for a couple of weeks, I'm realizing that I made the right choice."
The player added that the obvious off-field adjustment from Madrid to New York is matched by an on-field need to adapt. The NWSL and its Spanish counterpart, Liga F, have two notably different styles of play -- the former's more physical, the latter's more technical. That difference is very much part of the discourse as women's soccer evolves, with Spain's tactical approach seen as the future of the sport. Gonzalez felt no need to pit the two styles against each other, though, and instead expressed her intent to find a happy medium.
"I experience differences with Spain every day at training. In Spain, they play keeping the ball a little bit more.," she said. "They control the ball differently, it's a little bit more technical, but being there and being in this [league], it's about trying to find a mix and it's going to work out. … I'm also bringing all the qualities that they don't have here that I only have myself. I'm a strong player, it's just a matter of adapting and getting used to it in order to be successful here."
That said, Gonzalez has plenty of natural qualities that could come in handy right away for Gotham, especially as they chase their first playoff berth in two years with four matches to go.
"She is a finisher," Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch West told CBS Sports. "When I say lethal in the box, even the intensity she brings in and around goal -- and it's not just that, but her work rate on and off the ball, I think she brings an element that will help the current group that we have, has a style that I think will be very effective in the NWSL."
The best-of-both-worlds strategy that Gonzalez's promise exemplifies is not one that solely points out the NWSL's room for improvement. The league still has selling points that allow it to still be one of the top dogs in women's soccer.
"The one thing I think we always highlight is the parity within the league," Averbuch West added. "If you look at the table, it's extraordinary. I hate it as a GM because I want us to be good and everyone else to be bad, but realistically, there's nowhere else in the world that comes even close to that."
The U.S. is also a leader in progress off the pitch, especially after the U.S. Soccer Federation struck its equal pay agreement with the women's and men's national teams last year. It's an area that Gonzalez admitted Spain needs to make strides in. She and 40 other players, including the entire World Cup-winning team, are refusing to play for the national team over years-long mistreatment by the Royal Spanish Football Federation, highlighted by ex-president Luis Rubiales' forced kiss on Jenni Hermoso during the trophy presentation in Sydney.
"Here. upon arriving, I noticed all the players have a say and there's a lot of importance given to every player and there's a lot of fight that they've gone through," Gonzalez said. "In Spain, that's beginning. There's a lot of room to grow, there's a lot to go, but it's a fight that has to continue over there."
For now, Gonzalez is focused on the task at hand with Gotham. She made her debut as a substitute in the team's 3-3 draw at the North Carolina Courage on Sept. 2, but is poised to make her home debut on Saturday in a high-stakes encounter with the Washington Spirit. A long-term goal, naturally, is impressing in the NWSL beyond the next few games.
"For Maitane [Lopez, fellow Spain and Gotham player] and me, we consider it a top league and really wanted to come play here," she said. "The more we play here, there's going to be more visibility in Spain for people to see the league, to pay attention."
As the increasingly competitive women's soccer scene shifts from the World Cup to domestic leagues, it is worth remembering that this actually is not a zero-sum game.
"There are enough good players in the women's game that there can be three of four top leagues all with good teams so I think we're at that point," Averbuch West noted. "It's not like if a great player goes one place, it's not at the expense of another league. There are other great players as well."