Heartbreak at Home: Racing Louisville Falls to the Houston Dash As Playoff Hopes Dim

Racing Louisville fell to the Houston Dash 4-0 in a heartbreaking loss on Sunday.

This was the first game for Louisville since Nadia Nadim tore her ACL in the match against Orlando. Adding insult to injury, neither Gemma Bonner or Kayleigh Riehl played due to injury precaution, leaving Racing without either of their regular center backs. The absence of these three players was glaring from the outset. While not as big a name, Riehl has been a steady partner to Bonner with whom she shares good chemistry and communication.

Unfortunately, chemistry and communication were exactly what was missing on Sunday – and not just in the backline. Racing has struggled to connect throughout the season, which is understandable for a new team. Still, the team looked especially disconnected on Sunday. They played slowly out of the back and tried too hard to force plays. As a result, Houston just needed to sit back and wait for the inevitable mistake to pounce and, ultimately, score.

It was clear the players knew how important this match was as several looked despondent afterward, and understandably so. While Racing is not statistically eliminated from the playoff race, this loss essentially puts them out of competition. They currently need 10 points to reach sixth place which will be nearly impossible to accomplish with only five games remaining – especially for a team that’s gone 0-4-1 since the Women’s Cup.

This was also likely to be one of the easier games Racing faced in the remainder of their season. Previously, they’d beaten the Dash at home and lost 1-0 while away in Houston. These were two decent showings where Racing played more confidently even if the results weren’t perfect both times. Even the loss was more excusable as it was the last of five games in 15 days in August and it was away. That makes such a poor showing at home after a long rest a bit harder to swallow.

“Obviously, we’re all competitors, so we’re not happy with the result,” said midfielder Lauren Milliet after the match. “I think we still have a lot to play for. We still have lot to work for. Again, it’s the bigger picture, so I think a lot of us just want to perform. We want to go out and make sure we’re representing the city of Louisville, representing ourselves, representing our teammates.”

It’s hard to name exactly what went wrong for Racing. Ultimately, this is a young team with very limited NWSL experience and it showed. Losing Bonner, Riehl, and Nadim already weakened the team substantially. They’re also likely still adjusting to the abrupt coaching change and the switch to a relentless high pressing style. Throw in top players like Michelle Betos and Emily Fox having only okay to poor days instead of typically excellent ones plus Houston playing some of their best football all season and you inevitably end up with a painful loss like this one.

By The Numbers

The statistics for the match look almost exactly as one would expect for this match.

Racing held about 46% possession but much of that was passing around with very little successful forward momentum. As mentioned above, teams have learned to sit back and counter Racing too successfully. They only need to wait for Racing to make a mistake to regain possession and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened here.

Passing accuracy was only 66% which is far lower than the more typical high 70s or low 80s Racing has been getting.

Offensively, Racing was nearly invisible. For the first time, Racing had zero shots on target. They also only managed three shots off target. Comparatively, Houston had 17 shots with seven on goal.

Cheyna Matthews started and presented a few dangerous opportunities, but was unable to capitalize in her 45′ on the pitch. In the second half, Jorian Baucom and Ebony Salmon subbed in but failed to be any real threat. Back in June, Salmon made her NWSL debut against the Dash with a smashing goal within a minute of being subbed in. That daring, confident player seems a bit lost now, which is a concern. At 20, she’s still very young and adjusting to a different style of play in a new league, but hopefully, she’ll find her footing again soon.

Cheyna Matthews and Haley Hanson
Racing’s Cheyna Mathews and Houston’s Haley Hanson vie for the ball / Image courtesy EM Dash Photography

Winding Down

This was a painful loss for Racing and, with playoffs now essentially out of reach, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Still, it’s important to remember that this is an expansion team and this is basically what expansion teams do. The team has always said they didn’t want to be another debutant that takes their lumps as the new kid in the league. That’s an excellent mindset and it’s the right one for the team to have. But, at the end of the day, the fact remains that they’re still an expansion team in a tough league. The fact that they’ve been able to stay on par with how Houston and Orlando did in their inaugural years is praiseworthy considering Racing has also had to weather the firing of their head coach mid-season and deal with a global pandemic. And they managed to win their first trophy amidst all of this, too.

In their five remaining games, Louisville will play NJ/NY Gotham twice, and the Orlando Pride, North Carolina Courage, and Washington Spirit once. All of these teams are in a very tight race for the playoffs. Currently, only three points separate them. Even if they can’t make the playoffs, Racing can still play the spoiler. Maybe they can even grab a couple more points along the way.

Although the club has said they want to keep the core of the team intact, there is undoubtedly going to be some turnover. These five games can be used by players to make a statement on why they should stay on the roster. It was good to see Cheyna Matthews get a start on Sunday. It’d be nice to see Katie Lund or Taylor Otto get a start just to see how they do for a full match instead of just some fifteen or so minutes. Without a permanent head coach, it’s hard for Racing to fully build in any solid direction for next season but they can still use this time for player evaluation.

Ultimately, these next five games will show us a lot about Racing’s resilience. How do they react to a stinging loss like this? How do they respond to essentially being pushed out of playoff contention? Even if they don’t win their next matches, can they at least come back and play with the same heart they started the season with? With the weight of playoffs essentially removed from their shoulders, will they play more freely?

Time will tell how the season ends, but it’s good to remember that the road the team is on is just beginning. Racing has shown a lot of potential in their first nine months of play. In spurts, they’ve even shown moments of brilliance. While performances like the one on Sunday are concerning, it doesn’t erase any of the bright moments that came before. The club has built a good, strong foundation for the team and it’ll be exciting to see where it goes.

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on She-Plays.com. Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.