Come Together: Racing Louisville Rallies to Beat Orlando Pride

Racing Louisville rallied to beat the Orlando Pride 3-1 on Saturday night in front of a record crowd in Louisville. Over 8,400 fans braved the chill to smash the previous home record of 7,813 from August’s Women’s Cup final. Coincidentally, this was also Racing’s first win since being crowned Women’s Cup champions. This win breaks a seven-game winless streak that saw Racing earn only one point from a draw with the Reign in that period.

After conceding a goal in the third minute, Racing came back to score three unanswered. This match marked their first come-from-behind win ever. Orlando dominated much of the first half and had several good chances they failed to put away. In the last minute of stoppage time, Ebony Salmon curved a shot past the Pride’s keeper to bring things level. Racing entered the second half with no drop in momentum. After creating several chances, Katie McClure scored in the 52′ to earn her first professional goal. They finished the Pride off for good in the 77′ off a goal from Yuki Nagasato.

With one goal and two assists for the night, Ebony Salmon easily won Player of the Match. In fact, she could be in the running for Player of the Week after such a dominant performance. Salmon played the entire match with a degree of confidence and freedom that had been missing in recent games. She played instinctually and, frankly, just seemed happier on the pitch than she has in some time.

In fact, the whole team arguably played more confidently than they have all season. They moved the ball forward and read each other’s movement more consistently than they ever have previously. If Racing gave up possession, they attacked relentlessly to win it back and cut off passing lanes. Young players like Julia Ashley and Taylor Otto went head-to-head with superstars like Marta and Alex Morgan and often came out on top. For the entirety of the season, this team has shown moments of brilliance in matches but failed to play consistently. On Saturday night, it finally all came together and clicked.

“In training, we are constantly talking about getting through moments in games,” said interim coach Mario Sanchez. “Something clicked in them, and I think they just realized to just go out and do our thing. After the first 10 to 15 minutes, we played some fantastic soccer. To get the reward for the goals and the win because we played some really good soccer today.

During halftime, Sanchez said he told the players they were giving their opponents “too much respect”. Sure, the Pride have some incredible world-class players on their team. But Sanchez told them they were talented too. They just needed to “go out and be the players I know they can be.”

“Every player, I don’t want to stay stepped up. I think they just realized that they can play at this level. And then, you know, as a collective became one which is what the game is all about.”

Cheyna Matthews dribbles past Courtney Peterson
Racing’s Cheyna Matthews dribbles past Courtney Peterson / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos

Pushing Towards Change

Saturday’s match marked the team’s first win with Sanchez as manager. Under Sanchez, the club has a 1-4-1 record and has two games left in the season to play. Former coach Christy Holly was fired shortly after the Women’s Cup tournament for cause in September and Sanchez was brought in from the club’s academy as a replacement. While the reasons for Holly’s termination have not been made public, players have stated that this lack of transparency is at their request to protect the individuals involved.

Holly’s firing is just one of the many incidents that have rocked the league recently. Scandals involving abusive coaches and team leadership that covered for them have become so prevalent league commissioner Lisa Baird was forced to resign earlier this month. And through all of this, negotiations with the NWSL Player’s Association continue over their first collective bargaining agreement. The NWSLPA has a list of demands, including requiring each team to submit to a full investigation of their leadership. Originally, they asked clubs to comply with their requests by October 13. However, last week it was announced that they had granted a five-day extension.

“I think from a player’s perspective, we just really want the clubs involved to step back and just let the investigations happen,” said Addisyn Merrick after Saturday’s match. If the investigations take place, they would help resolve lingering issues and allow everyone to move forward.

Former Washington Spirit player and current Racing forward Cheyna Matthews says she sees some big differences between the clubs. The Spirit’s owners are currently mired in a battle for control of the club after it was revealed now-former coach Richie Burke was abusive to players.

“The biggest thing that’s been different from my time in Washington until now is the transparency that we have,” said Matthews. “Even from our President [Brad Estes] and how he’s been able to sit players down, communicate with them, ask them what they’d like to see. And so I just think that’s been an outpouring of receptiveness on their end. It just feels like we’re finally being heard. I just think if the transparency keeps progressing, then we’ll see some of the changes – hopefully, all the changes – that we’d like to see.”

“This is just a time of change,” said Merrick on where she sees the league going. “Our league deserves better, and that’s what we’re working towards — bettering everything, protecting our players more, and taking things more seriously. Just having the conversations that need to be had even if it’s uncomfortable – we are starting to have those. That’s just the beginning of it and pushing toward change is to continue having these talks and educate people on things that are and aren’t okay. Overall, transparency throughout the league would be really good for us.”

In terms of how Racing weathered Holly’s firing and other league scandals, Matthews says the team has mostly remained positive.

“I think, honestly, our locker room has been really positive about everything. It did get really heavy on us for a while there, but I think the spirit of what we’ve been able to accomplish just in our conversations and like I said, the transparency that we’ve had from the front office, the higher-ups to any of the players, that cohesiveness plays into how we’re able to cope on the field. And I think it gives us a boost of confidence to know we’re being heard. We’re able to communicate with each other better because of it.”

By The Numbers

Stats don’t always paint a perfect picture of a match. To most people’s eyes, Racing dominated play in the second half of the match, and yet, their passing accuracy actually dropped in the second half and their possession barely changed.

For the full match, Racing had a fairly low passing accuracy of only 72% (75% FH, 70.4% SH) compared to the Pride’s 78%. The Pride’s passing accuracy dropped precipitously from 82% to 74% from the first to second half. This demonstrates that Racing did a better job of cutting off passing lanes or challenging Pride’s players more effectively in the latter part of the match.

Racing’s players also seemed to take Sanchez’s halftime remarks about giving the Pride too much respect to heart. They conceded no fouls in the first half, but committed 9 in the second.

Possession lingered around 42% across the entire match. In recent matches, Racing held higher possession as teams sat back waited for Racing to make a mistake they could pounce on. This was particularly evident in the most recent match against Houston. This time, the roles were reversed with Racing pouncing on Orlando to force turnovers that ultimately got converted to goals. Yuki Nagasato intercepting a pass from a Pride defender and quickly sending it forward to Salmon for Racing’s first goal of the match is probably the best example of this.

 

Ebony Salmon is lifted up by Julia Ashley and Taylor Otto after her goal
Ebony Salmon celebrates her goal with Julia Ashley and Taylor Otto / Image courtesy EM Dash Photography

High Notes

With only two games left in their season, the win against Orlando allows Racing to end their season on a high note. After a coaching termination, disruptions due to league drama, and several key injuries, Racing showed they still have a lot of fight in them. And, more importantly, they showed for the first time that they have the belief, too. Racing has always fought until the end in every match, but they rarely played like they truly believed they could win. In order to rally and come from behind, there needs to be belief in both the individual and the collective. Saturday was the first time Racing truly showed they had it.

“I keep telling everybody about the character of this team, and sometimes results don’t show that,” said Sanchez after the match. “Tonight, we absolutely saw what these ladies were all about and what this team was all about. I’m so so happy for them.”

This decisive win in front of a record crowd not only speaks to the players’ growth but to the fanbase’s. It’s doubtless that the large crowd was due, in part, to Alex Morgan’s presence. And that’s fine. If Alex Morgan can draw first-timers, performances like Saturday’s are likely to bring folks back. With the vast majority of inaugural season ticket holders renewing their tickets for 2022, Racing’s fanbase seems not just solid but poised to grow.

Besides beating their attendance record, Racing also broke a league-wide record. The three points in this match give Racing the most points ever earned by an expansion side in their inaugural year. In 2014, the Houston Dash earned 18 and in 2016, Orlando earned 19. With this win against Orlando, Racing now has 20 points. Orlando still holds the highest win percentage in an inaugural year because they played 20 in their first year versus the 24 played by Racing in 2021. However, Louisville still has two more games to play. If they win one of the upcoming matches against Gotham, they’ll lead in win percentage also.

And with the energy and newfound confidence they displayed on Saturday, anything could happen.

Author

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville and the NWSL. Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @sukiisacat.