Ekic Hits Her “Sweet Spot”
Racing Louisville battled back to earn a 1-1 draw against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday night. After conceding an early goal, Racing remained scoreless for over 70 minutes until Emina Ekic’s equalized with a rocket from distance.
“I practice that shot 100 times,” said Ekic after the match. This can be confirmed by any fans who’ve watched pre-game warm-ups. Seeing Ekic line up a final shot from above the penalty area as all her teammates are returning to the locker room is a common sight before matches. The fact she sank a shot in the upper left corner – a place she calls “her sweet spot” – was only a matter of time.
Coach Kim Björkegren praised his team for coming back from a mediocre first half to equalize in the second.
“First half was OK, but not amazing – in the second half, much better,” he said. In particular, he praised the substitutes, like Ekic and Savannah DeMelo who came in and energized the team. “The end of the game, we controlled. We had the momentum. We were close to winning the game, so I’m proud about the team’s fight and spirit to keep working for 90 minutes. You always want to win a home game, but we did our best, especially in the second half.”
Although some may find this draw a bit of a letdown after their win against Kansas City, it is still solid evidence that the team is improving. Coming back to equalize after going down a goal was something Racing struggled to do last season. Saturday night’s match was the first time Racing has gone down a goal first this season. The fact they were able to hold Chicago back and find a late equalizer demonstrates a shift in mentality from 2021 to now.
What's better than one angle of @emina_ekic10's goal from last night?
TWO angles of Emina Ekic's goal from last night. 😍 pic.twitter.com/TSFTnxfB90
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) April 17, 2022
“We talk a lot about mentality,” said midfielder Freja Olofsson. She attributed the ability of the team to come back and earn the draw to the fact they’ve come together so well as a squad. And now that Racing is no longer an expansion team, they’re feeling the pressure to get better results. “The first year might have been to feel the league a little bit, but now it’s time to actually make results and to really win. We all want to win.”
Ekic echoed Olofsson’s sentiment about the team’s chemistry helping push them to the next level.
“I would say the camaraderie is really there. We play with and for each other. We work for each other, we fill in for each other, we interchange, we swap roles, we help each other out. Whether it’s communicating or whether it’s helping someone out and stepping into their role. That’s really helped us. We’re really a strong unit together.”
The match started with Racing getting a couple of early chances in the first five minutes. In the seventh minute, pressure from Chicago forced a turnover. A shot from Chicago’s Mallory Pugh got batted away by goalkeeper Katie Lund, but the rebound was immediately collected and sent in by Amanda Kowalski. For the rest of the first half, both teams traded shots but came up empty.
In the second half, Racing came in looking consistently more dangerous as Chicago attempted to bunker down. From the 59′ until the 75′, Racing was the only team to get any shots. After forcing a tactical foul in a dangerous area, Emina Ekic equalized off a set piece from just above the penalty arc. Although another foul would lead to another similar set piece for Racing, the game would end in a 1-1 draw.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 17, 2022
By The Numbers
This was a rare match where Racing had more shots than their opponent. While Louisville had 13 total shots on the night, Chicago had nine. The Red Stars did have the edge in shots on goal with six to Racing’s four. As a result, Katie Lund was forced to make five saves while Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher was forced to make three.
Possession stayed split evenly across both halves. Chicago barely had the edge overall with 51%. Racing’s passing accuracy was around 76% overall. Interestingly, Racing has had their highest passing accuracy against Chicago this year. They’ve only averaged 72% against KC and Houston. Against Chicago, they’ve averaged 77%. For whatever reason, Racing just plays well against Chicago. While Racing has beaten the Red Stars once, the Red Stars have never beaten Racing.
Racing’s Freja Olofsson had the highest passing accuracy of any player on the field with 96%. Center back Julia Lester also had another strong game. She tied Emily Fox for the most touches, came in first on the team with total passes, and second on the team in passing accuracy with 86%.
Season 1 vs. Season 2 Comparison: Five Games In
By this time last season, Racing was already a game into the regular season. Only four Challenge Cup games were played last season while there are six this year due to the added California expansion teams. When you compare stats from their first five games last year to their first five this year, you can see that Racing has already improved in some areas.
Five games into 2021, Racing had taken 46 shots with 14 on goal (30.4% on target). They’d also scored four goals. Racing scored two goals against Orlando and two against North Carolina. They had zero goals in their other three matches against the Spirit, Gotham, and Kansas City. Comparatively, in 2022, Racing has taken 49 shots with 20 on goal (40.8% on target). So while that isn’t much of an increase in shots, the shots have become significantly more accurate. They’ve also scored six goals in 2022 which is an improvement of averaging 0.8 goals per match last season to 1.4 now.
All in all, it’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been a strong increase in offensive production. But what about defensively? Racing is holding possession slightly better than this time last year. In 2021, they averaged 47% possession through five matches. In 2022, they average 49.42%. That’s the good news. In more surprising news, Racing has faced a significantly higher number of shots (69 in 2021; 75 in 2022) and shots on goal (21 in 2021; 26 in 2022) this season versus last. Part of this is due to the outlier of 24 shots with 9 on goal faced by Racing in 2022’s first match against Kansas City. If you remove that outlier, the averages are much closer to 2021. In terms of goals, Racing had conceded six goals by this time in 2021. In 2022, they’ve conceded five, so there’s a slight improvement there.
Ultimately, this isn’t a like-to-like comparison. Racing had mostly played very different teams last year, so it’s hard to say what the numbers would look like against other competition. Even so, the offensive output is improved enough and consistent enough to argue that significant growth has taken place in this area. Defensively, Racing is still letting teams have too many chances. That will hurt them against deadlier, more accurate teams. As the season continues, it’ll be interesting to see if Racing stays ahead of their 2021 stats. As teams like the Spirit and the Thorns get added into Racing’s rotation, will their stats take a hit or will they continue this upward offensive arc? We’ll continue to check back in every so often to compare.
With the Portland Thorn’s win over the San Diego Wave on Sunday, Racing is now officially eliminated from the Challenge Cup. While they can still earn second place in the Central Division if they beat Houston and Kansas City beats Chicago next week, they cannot overcome Portland in terms of points to earn the fourth place berth in the tournament playoffs.
While Racing’s tournament may be over, they have a lot to be proud of. Last year, they finished last place in their division. Thanks to Houston’s -7 goal differential, even if they beat Racing next week and tie them in points, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll score enough goals to overcome Racing in the standings. Racing currently ranks seventh in the league overall. They have more points than Angel City, the Wave, the Pride, Gotham, and the Dash. If this was the regular season, they’d be on the cusp of playoffs. That’s not bad for a second-year team that’s faced massive turnover in both players and coaching staff.
In one of my first articles ever, I wrote that the thing about growing pains is that they hurt. Racing faced some tough, painful matches in 2021 and they’re sure to face some in 2022. But that pain hasn’t been and won’t be for naught because there are true signs of growth already apparent in the squad. Ekic and Olofsson talked about improved camaraderie and mentality this season. Racing’s already shown their resiliency in coming back from their loss to Houston go on a three-game unbeaten streak against the top two teams in their division. In the only game where they’ve gone down a goal first, they powered back and equalized off Ekic’s set piece.
It’s impossible to say how Racing’s story will end in 2022. They’ve openly said they want to make the playoffs and maybe they will, maybe they won’t. After all, this team still has a lot of growing to do. But there seems to be little doubt that they’re already standing a little taller than they did last year.