After struggling through some growing pains, Racing Louisville’s last three matches indicate a team that’s in the midst of a growth spurt. In a marathon series of three matches in just seven days, Racing won two, including their first away victory in Chicago. They even showed some progress in their single loss. Earning six out of nine points is a fantastic achievement, considering the teams played.
The week started when Racing won 1-0 at home against the Houston Dash last Sunday. Three days later, they lost 0-2 against the North Carolina Courage, who had previously routed Racing 0-5 in their last meetup. Finally, on Saturday, Louisville took on the Chicago Red Stars – a team with three World Cup winners in their starting lineup – and blanked them 3-0 in Racing’s best result to date. That’s a serious turnaround for a team that had faced two resounding defeats in their two prior matches.
“Internally, we have a lot of quiet confidence,” said Coach Christy Holly after the win in Chicago. “We’re under no illusions, there’s some major work to be done and we have some long nights ahead. There’s going to be good nights and there’s going to be rough nights. But we want to make everything competitive.”
There’s a lot to be said about Racing’s progress these last three games, so let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the past week:
Living Up to the Hype
The impact Gemma Bonner and Ebony Salmon have had on Racing is undeniable. The two English players were heavily hyped when they signed with Racing earlier this year. And from their first moments on the pitch, they’ve lived up to it all.
Salmon made a particularly splashy entrance into the league, scoring a world-class goal in just 45 seconds on the pitch. After getting subbed in during the 71st minute, Salmon received a pass from McCaskill and pushed through no fewer than three defenders to score the game-winner. It was so good it earned her the number one spot on SportsCenter.
— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) June 22, 2021
She continued to perform extremely well in the next two games. Subbing in again against North Carolina, she earned Racing their only shot on target off an assist from Emily Fox. And in her first start against Chicago, she scored Racing’s only first-half goal ever off an assist from CeCe Kizer. Almost single-handedly, Salmon has changed the look of Racing’s attack. Holly previously described her ability to make space to get a shot off as ‘scary’ and it’s immediately apparent why.
While not as splashly as Salmon, Bonner’s impact has been no less evident. In just her first game, Racing’s defense was more organized than it had been to that date. Throughout the game, she was visibly directing the backline and defensive midfielders and correcting their positioning. This level of leadership has helped the defense stay more effective than it had ever been previously.
Bonner is also an impactful leader off the pitch. Defender Addisyn Merrick, who got her first minutes this season after suffering a fracture in her spine earlier this season, credits Bonner with keeping her calm and focused in her Racing debut.
“Just from the little bit she’s been here, she’s had an impact on me,” said Merrick during an interview on Soccer City radio on ESPN Louisville. After such a long time away from the pitch and such a serious injury, tension was high. But Bonner told her to simply focus on doing her job the best she can and that gave Merrick the confidence she needed for a successful first match. “She helped me focus so that was really nice.”
Numbers Trending Upward
Over the course of the week, Louisville’s stats improved in two key areas: the number of shots faced and in maintaining possession. In their two most recent matches prior to this week, both Portland and North Carolina got off 28 shots. In the game before that, Washington managed 29, despite the fact that Racing won. This week, Houston stayed on trend with 23 shots. But, in a sharp change from their last matchup, North Carolina only managed 19. Chicago had 17. While those numbers are still higher than Racing wants, cutting down shots taken by almost a third is cause for celebration.
Another issue that has plagued Racing throughout their inaugural season is their ability – or inability – to hold onto possession. Prior to this week, Racing has only held better than 40% possession in one out of four matches. This week, they managed a 50/50 split against both Houston and Chicago. Although the Courage match had a season-low of 37%, the weekly average was still about 46%. That’s significantly better than the previous four-game average of 43%.
The causes for these improvements are many. One, the team has played together longer and is starting to gel. Two, Bonner’s strong presence is keeping the defense organized while also helping to build up plays from the back. Third, Salmon’s constant threat means teams can’t put as many numbers forward which cuts down on their chances. Four, having players like Addisyn Merrick, Julia Ashley, and other return from injury means players are better rested. There are probably many additional reasons, but no matter how you slice it, Racing is starting to gel in a way they haven’t before.
Rest and Rotation
In Wednesday’s game against the Courage, Coach Holly decided to rotate out the majority of starters. For the first time all season, Emily Fox and Freya Olofsson didn’t start. Despite playing all 90 minutes on Sunday, Gemma Bonner didn’t play a minute against North Carolina. Looking at the schedule, Holly clearly decided to bet on the fact that Chicago and Houston were the likeliest victories. This gamble paid off with Louisville notching both of those wins.
Despite their loss to the Courage, Racing showed the same fight and competitiveness that has distinguished their inaugural season. Three players – Sinclaire Miramontez, Cheyna Matthews, and Jorian Baucom – all got their first starts and all of them fought the entire game. Addisyn Merrick and Julia Ashley both got substantial minutes after returning from injury with Ashley taking a dangerous shot that earned her play of the game accolades.
.@juliashley11 looking for the top 🗑!
Your Vivify Ice in Their Veins Moment! 👇 pic.twitter.com/eIuKYE5m9b
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) June 24, 2021
Even with such massive rotation, Racing fought to a better result than their last meetup with the Courage. And this is despite the fact the Courage had almost all their regular starters on the pitch. Even with players like Lynn Williams, Sam Mewis, and Debinha on the pitch, and Racing still held them to only two goals. While Racing’s possession was not good, North Carolina got off far fewer shots than they had previously. A huge part of Racing’s success continues to be due to captain Michelle Betos, who remains a brick wall in goal. But it can also be credited to the fact that this is a team that has a lot of fight in them and supports each other no matter who is on the pitch.
After the Houston game, Gemma Bonner was asked how the team would handle such a tight schedule. Her answer was simple: “Every single player here is supporting whoever is on the pitch no matter whether they’re on the bench or in the stands. I think that’s a really great quality that we’ve got, that we’re always pushing each other and that when you step out onto the pitch you’ve got everybody behind you.”
Such devotion and team unity is something pretty unique, according to Bonner. She would know, with ten years of professional experience across several teams in England.
“This group is exciting and special. I said to the girls that we’re quite unique in what we have in the dressing room.”
Racing is still likely to struggle against the top teams – as they did against North Carolina. They’re making strides, but there is still a lot of growth to be had.
However, they have shown that they can beat mid-ranked teams consistently. Racing has won against the Red Stars, the Spirit, and the Dash this season. None of these teams are pushovers. This may sound like faint praise, but this is exactly what they need to do to earn a playoff spot. The top six teams make the playoffs and Racing is currently resting comfortably in sixth place. No expansion side has made it in their first year, but Holly says that’s the team’s goal.
If they can hold onto that by beating middle-of-the-pack opponents, Louisville might just earn that berth. The signs of growth shown throughout this week, in terms of goal production, defensive prowess, and holding possession show that Racing might still be on their way up. And there may be more favorable waters ahead.
After this weekend, players around the league will be leaving in preparation for the Olympic Games. Many of them won’t return until August at the earliest. This will affect every team in the NWSL except Racing Louisville. Racing’s next match is against the Thorns, but a very different Thorns than the ones they last met. Portland will be without Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, and Becky Sauerbraunn. Likewise, Racing’s following match is against the Orlando Pride who will be missing starters Alex Morgan, Marta, and Ali Riley. Racing will have their best shot all season at beating or drawing with these top teams with their superstars gone for the Olympics. If Louisville can pull out a couple of wins and lessen their still hefty goal differential, they’ll be in a good position to face the second half of the season.
And with Danish superstar Nadia Nadim due to join the team in this period, Racing will be one of the only teams actually improving their roster instead of losing key players. So if there was ever a time for Racing to seize the moment, it’s now.