Grit and Fight
History is being made left and right at Racing Louisville.
On the heels of a historic first win over the Portland Thorns last Saturday, Racing came on Wednesday to beat OL Reign for the first time and earn a place in the 2023 UKY Challenge Cup final. Not only was Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Seattle side Louisville’s first-ever playoff victory, but it was also their first-ever playoff appearance (outside of the Women’s Cup which is only a friendly tournament and not sanctioned by any league.) Put another way, Racing had their biggest game in team history on Saturday against Portland and followed it up a few days later with their new biggest game in team history against Seattle. Talk about a great week for the young Louisville team — and a pretty abysmal one for the two powerhouses of the Pacific Northwest.
Louisville’s Elli Pikkujämsä summed up the win against OL Reign aptly when she said, “It was not the prettiest game, but it doesn’t matter.”
She’s right that the performance on the pitch could have been cleaner, but that hardly matters when the team got the three points it needed to advance. Ultimately, their single goal from Kirsten Davis was scored off a severe error by OL Reign defender Sam Hiatt who essentially passed the ball to Davis off of a free kick while Davis was standing at the top of Seattle’s box. Davis deftly knocked the ball out of the air, turned, and fired before the keeper or closest defender could react. Much of the rest of the match was spent defending furiously, but they were successful and kept their opponents off the board despite OL Reign subbing in major players like Megan Rapinoe, Jordyn Huitema, and Jess Fishlock.
“We stuck together and put our bodies on the line to block shots and keep things out of the way,” said keeper Katie Lund of Racing’s defensive performance. “I couldn’t be happier for us or the way that we played. We’ve been through a lot and this just shows that we have the grit and the fight and that we can win in this league.”
Thanks to this win, Racing now heads to North Carolina on extremely short rest to take on the Courage this Saturday at 12:30 PM. Just making the final will give every play on the team a substantial monetary bonus, but winning it would see each player pocketing $13,400. Considering the minimum National Women’s Soccer League salary hovers around $40,000, this is a comparatively substantial sum.
When asked how the team would take on the Courage — yet another top team that Racing has yet to beat — head coach Kim Björkegren deadpanned that he’d have to sleep on it before he can dive into tactics, but he did say that he thinks his team is in the best position possible to slay another league giant.
“We really believe in ourselves right now,” said the coach. “We are fighting really hard, so I think it’s a good time for us to take North Carolina as well.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) September 7, 2023
By the Numbers
For the majority of the match, this was a pretty even game. The first half ended with Racing up a goal with 0.37 xG and OL Reign with 0.34 xG according to Opta. Racing also had the slightest edge in possession with 53% although a good portion of their possession didn’t involve much forward momentum.
In the second half, OL Reign found their footing as they began to sub in regular starters while Louisville instead mostly bunkered down. As a result, OL Reign earned 0.71 xG to Racing’s 0.25. In the final half of the game, Katie Lund faced nine shots although only one was on target compared to Racing only getting off two shots with none on target. OL Reing clearly gained more momentum as they also held onto 58% of the possession in the second half.
Neither team had particularly effective passing accuracy with Racing having only 71% and OL Reign just about 70% at full-time.
All in all, this data exemplifies Pikkujämsä’s comments that this was not a particularly pretty game for Racing, but it was enough to get the job done.
The team was a bit more impressive defensively, with Abby Erceg standing out. With the most knockout match experience of any player on the team (not to mention three championships, three shields, and defensive player of the year accolades) she held Racing’s defense together with 10 clearances — double the next closest player — and four aerial duels with two won. She also had the second most touches in the game and the highest passing accuracy (84%) of any starter on Racing.
Elli Pikkujämsä also had a standout match, which is even more impressive considering she was playing as the holding midfielder in Jaelin Howell’s absence instead of her usual center-back position. Pikkujämsä was involved in a whopping 24 duels and won 10 of them — more than any of her teammates in both categories.
Racing has a unique chance to slay three of the biggest giants in NWSL history in a single week. They’ve already chopped down the Thorns and overcome the deadlock against OL Reign and now they have the chance to knock out perpetual playoff contender and regular league shield and championship winner the North Carolina Courage.
The fact that Racing seems to have a pretty solid shot at accomplishing this feat is a remarkable turnaround for a club that’s struggled to develop a winning culture. In this season alone, they’ve given up two-goal leads three times — including twice to OL Reign. They also lead the league in draws with nine. To then go beat two huge teams in a span of days is a massive confidence booster for the young team. As someone who has been with Racing since day one, Lund says this team’s belief in themselves is what propelled them to finally earn these big victories.
“We’ve been up, we’ve been down,” said Lund, “but I truly believe this is the best team we’ve ever had. The belief is there. The support that we have is incredible and we felt that tonight.”
Racing has never beaten North Carolina in any of their previous eight meetings. After suffering through 3-0, 5-0, and 5-1 drubbings in past years, Racing has only lost each game this year by a single goal.
Also in Racing’s favor is the fact that they’ve done exceptionally well in tight schedules. The first time they played three games in 10 days or less this year they got their first-ever three-game winning streak across all competitions. The next time, they got one draw and two wins across all competitions.
Three games in eight days is an especially tight turnaround, though, especially when they’ve had to fly from coast to coast to do it. Even so, they should go into Saturday feeling confident in their chances and buoyed by the success they’ve had. They’ve already had their two biggest games in history in one week. Why not have a third?