The Challenge Cup has finally arrived! The tournament opens tonight at 7:30 PM at Lynn Family Stadium as Racing Louisville hosts the Kansas City Current.
Both Louisville and Kansas City were expansion teams in 2021 and ended the season at the bottom of the standings. As a result, both have made some serious off-season moves to become more competitive. Major players have left, major players have been added, and both will look very different than they did last year. So it’s anybody’s guess as to how this match will go!
Here’s a deeper dive into both teams and what fans can expect when the Current and Racing meet for the first time in 2022.
A Rough Entrance
When the 2021 regular season came to a close, Racing and the Current found themselves in ninth and tenth place respectively. It’s not uncommon for expansion teams to have a rough entrance to the league, so this was no real surprise. In fact, the biggest surprise may have been that it was Racing in ninth. After all, Racing was a completely new franchise. Kansas City, on the other hand, was essentially the Utah Royals picked up and moved to a new city. Some Kansas City players had played together for years whereas most of Louisville’s players hadn’t even met before preseason.
And yet it was Racing in ninth place with 22 points and the Current in last place with 16. Those 22 points earned by Racing also won them the honor of most points earned by an expansion team in their inaugural year. While a shorter season in 2016 earned Orlando a slightly higher winning percentage with their 18 points, Racing still won the total points accolades.
As nice as that is, no one wants to stay in second-to-last or last place. So both teams spent the offseason making major changes. They both saw major turnover with only 13 of Racing’s 2021 players returning for 2022. Kansas City went even further and only 11 of their previous season players are returning this year. What’s really interesting, though, is that once they started rebuilding, both teams took very different tactics.
Only 24 more hours 'til we're back. 🤩
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) March 17, 2022
Racing Louisville: Pure Potential
When Racing Louisville went into their rebuild, they decided to lean heavily on youth. The goal seems to be to acquire young talent via drafts or trades for high draft picks and to develop them into the kind of players the team needs.
After acquiring Christen Press in the 2021 Expansion Draft, Racing ultimately traded her rights to Angel City FC for some allocation money and their natural first-round pick of the 2022 College Draft. As one of two expansion teams entering the league in 2022, Angel City was guaranteed to have the first or second pick. So before 2021 even ended, Racing was already betting on building their squad up with a top draftee. Their natural pick came in at fourth, so they ended the season with two out of the top four picks of the draft. These two picks ultimately turned into Jaelin Howell – one of the most decorated collegiate players in recent memory – and Savannah DeMelo – a versatile midfielder with years of youth national team experience.
Racing rounded out their roster with primarily rookie players like Kirsten Davis, Parker Goins, and Jordyn Bloomer. All in all, seven rookies made it onto a Challenge Cup roster of 22 players. This means almost a third of the entire squad is rookies. Even the returning players trend extremely young with Lauren Milliet and Cece Kizer at 25 and 24 years old respectively. Striker Ebony Salmon only recently turned 21.
As a result, Racing’s squad heading into the Challenge Cup is all potential. And the thing about potential is it doesn’t always pan out. But if it does, you’re set with a solid core of players for years to come. Last year, Emily Fox was the first pick of the college draft. She was indisputably the best all-around player on the team and she only continues to get better. Jaelin Howell is about as sure of a bet as one can make. World Cup winner Jessica McDonald – the only veteran player acquired by Racing in the off-season – recently said Kirsten Davis is “one of my favorite wingers that I’ve played with in a while.” High praise for a rookie who hasn’t seen a minute of professional competition yet. So Racing seems to have some pretty solid bets on the table.
The other thing about potential, however, is that it takes time to be realized. Very few young players will come out the gate in top form. It’ll take time for these players to truly show what they’ve got. They have strong veterans to guide them – including the aforementioned McDonald, there’s also Nadia Nadim and Gemma Bonner. Even so, it’ll be an uphill battle. Especially in the early days while everyone is still learning to play together.
But Racing is betting on the future. They’re playing the long game. And if even just Jaelin Howell can transition to the pros as seamlessly as Fox did in 2021, Racing will be an improved side in 2022.
Kansas City Current: Capitalize Quickly
If Racing is playing the long game, Kansas City is looking to capitalize now. They’re giving up valuable draft picks and young talent to grab big names now to get an immediate return on investment.
In the off-season, the Current acquired two U.S. National Team players from the North Carolina Courage: Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams. Both are top players. Even better, they have excellent chemistry already from playing together for years. Their presence on the Current immediately raises the talent level on the squad significantly.
To get Sam Mewis, however, the Current gave up the third pick of the 2022 College Draft and the player Kiki Pickett. In 2021, the Current bought the pick they used on Pickett for $175,000 – a record-breaking sum for a draft pick. As a result, many assumed that she’d be a player Kansas City would build around. So sending her away after only one year removes what many assumed would be a pillar for the future.
To get Lynn Williams, the Current paid the Courage $200,000 in allocation money and their natural first-round pick for next year. Therefore, in just two trades, the Current have given away two top draft picks, one of their key players of the future, and a whole lot of money. While they did trade the Courage the rights to Malia Berkely to get the Courage’s natural 2022 pick in exchange (the seventh overall) that’s giving away a more proven young player in Berkely for a relative unknown.
It’s possible the Current looked at the 2022 crop of draftees and felt that there was a drop off after the top two, Howell and Naomi Girma. But giving away their top pick next year and two young players also leaves them fairly exposed. There’s no doubt Mewis and Williams will boost the team’s situation in the short term. Especially since they’re joining former Courage players Hailie Mace and Kristen Hamilton with whom they already have great on-field rapport. However, Mewis is still recovering from an ankle injury. Williams can run hot and cold. That’s a lot of eggs in primarily two baskets. If Mewis and Williams get injured or have a decline, Kansas City currently has very little youth to develop at this time.
As a side note, it’s also interesting that a team that asked for and got full roster protection in the expansion draft still turned over more of their players than most others. True, they stayed masters of their own destiny and in full control of their moves, but it doesn’t seem like they were that interested in protecting a core of players after all.
Lots of fun at match day minus one. 😃 pic.twitter.com/k3LxuQg78g
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) March 17, 2022
Topped Off at 22?
So which strategy will work better: The youth movement or the proven talent? It’s hard to say. The Current raided their coffers to try to buy instant success. Racing is betting on its ability to mold young potential into the stars of the future. By design, Kansas City’s strategy will likely pay off faster and maybe they stand to benefit more from those quick returns with a new stadium and training field on the way. Racing has excellent facilities in place and has already developed a strong fanbase, so they have time to take a slightly slower build.
What’s also tantalizing about both teams is that they both only have 22 players rostered. That’s the absolute minimum a team can have in the Challenge Cup. Could this signify they have some international signings waiting in the wings to join later? Or could it mean they emptied their coffers so much they can’t afford any additional players?
In Racing’s case, it’s fairly likely they’re looking abroad. Racing has three international spots open at the moment and even traded for one when Yuki Nagasato returned to the Chicago Red Stars. It’s less clear for Kansas City. With amounts of allocation money held by teams not made public, it’s hard to see what they have to work with. We know they gave away $200,000 in a trade. It’s also likely they’re paying both Mewis and Williams significant salaries that are bolstered with additional allocation money. It’s possible they don’t have much left to acquire another major talent, but it’s very hard to tell.
On both rosters, there are some clear deficits to be filled. For Racing, they have a whopping eight forwards but only five defenders. Therefore, it seems likely they’ll be shopping primarily for centerbacks before the regular season starts. Racing gave up the most goals of any team in 2021. Now their backline is the smallest it’s ever been without any new additions barring Addisyn Merrick’s return from injury. Although Merrick and Nealy Martin can play as both center and fullback, it’s likely Racing will want to find a more steady partner for Gemma Bonner in the center of the pitch. In the meantime, Jaelin Howell can hopefully help bolster the backline whenever necessary.
Interestingly, Kansas City once again has gone in the exact opposite direction. While they have nine defenders, they only have a measly four forwards. Sure, Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton are among those four, but the other two are a rookie and a player who has spent much of her career on supplemental rosters. At this point, an injury to either Hamilton or Williams would be catastrophic for the Current. Mewis is an excellent player but she’s still recovering from an injury and isn’t in top shape herself.
It’s game day!
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) March 18, 2022
I Thought This Was a Match Preview…
And so this has been a very long article just to say that anything could happen! It’s almost impossible to tell what either team will look like when they take the field tonight. Both teams have a lot to prove after last season and will want to make a statement in this first match. Racing’s coach Kim Björkengren has said the team will play to win the Challenge Cup as opposed to using it as a time for experimentation. There’s little to indicate Kansas City doesn’t feel the same way.
Racing has the home field advantage and that should definitely help (as long as Mother Nature doesn’t force cancellation or delay with large hail or tornadoes). All the new players have spoken about how they’ve been eagerly waiting to get into the stadium and play in front of their fans. Hopefully, this fire and excitement will give the team what they need to overpower the Current.
As far as playing style, players have said coach Kim Björkengren’s focus has been on getting back-to-the-basics. Players are learning to perfect the fundamentals and become more technically proficient first and foremost. This will help them learn each other’s preferences and tendencies on the field which will inevitably take time. As they progress, that foundation will be built upon step-by-step. Fans should expect Racing to play direct, build from the back, and try to control possession. Racing wasn’t particularly good at doing any of these things last season, but a stronger midfield should help that significantly.
There’s no doubt that this game will be very telling for both teams. How well has each of their gambles paid off? How are the many new players on each side meshing together? And, quite simply, who’s hungrier?
Come check out the game at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville at 7:30 PM. Limited edition Challenge Cup schedule posters will be handed out to fans while supplies last. If you can’t make it in person, be sure to watch it live on Paramount+.