Building a House
During Wednesday’s Q&A session with season ticket holders, coach Kim Björkegren described the process of building a team as similar to building a house. You have to carefully lay your foundation first, then build upwards with a proper plan in mind. As for how far along the team is in their build, Björkegren said that major progress has been made.
“We have the ground, we have the walls now and we can see in the games that this team is so much stronger than it was a couple of months ago,” he said after today’s practice. Now it’s time to focus more on the details and those can take time to iron out. Fans have already seen clear signs of progress from the Challenge Cup into the start of the regular season. Players have connected better, set pieces are more tactical, overlapping runs, and planned movements are more prevalent in each match. Now, as they prepare for their home opener on Saturday night, Racing will have two more players to help hammer out those details.
Northern Irish outer back Rebecca Holloway and Australian midfielder Alex Chidiac have finally joined the squad this week after being signed in March and April respectively. When asked about the new players, Björkegren said, “They add quality, for sure.” Björkegren described Holloway as a physical defender with a good left foot. As a left-footed left back, she may free up versatile Emily Fox to move around the field or allow her rest if necessary. Chidiac is particularly good on the ball, said Björkegren. She’s able to work in tight spaces and play creatively.
So far both players say they’re settling in well despite some residual jet lag. They’ve both been watching the team from afar with Holloway following for longer than most might expect.
“I was familiar with it from probably day one,” said Holloway about how long she’s been aware of Racing. She went to college in Nashville so when the NWSL announced an expansion in nearby Louisville, it immediately got her attention. Joining Racing interested her from the very beginning, so when the opportunity arose, she jumped at it.
“When the conversation came about it was a no-brainer. It was like, yes, I want to be a part of that.”
According to Chidiac, her introduction to Racing was “quite last minute.” She said everything happened very rapidly starting in the week of the A-League’s grand final in late March. She had good conversations with coaching and technical staff and decided Racing would be a good fit.
“Never really saw myself playing here [in the NWSL], to be honest, but I think it’s going to be a really great learning curve for me,” she said.
It’s likely fans will see both Chidiac and Holloway get minutes this week. If not in Saturday’s home opener then on Wednesday’s match against the San Diego Wave. Unsurprisingly, Björkegren said that these games in such close proximity – and another game the following Sunday in New York – rotation is a must. Racing will need to use their depth and luckily these two additional players can help build up an even stronger team.
Coming off a 2-2 draw in Seattle, Racing Louisville players are likely feeling pretty good about themselves. Racing held their own and was even the dominant team for stretches. Therefore, earning a point – especially with star Emily Fox out due to minor injury – is a good boost for the team.
“We showed in Seattle, for example, that we are good enough to win against all the teams,” said Björkegren. We were not too far away from a 3-2 game at the end and Seattle is maybe one of the most difficult games you can play in the NWSL. So that shows that we can absolutely win – especially a home game – against all the teams as well.”
Racing is still looking for their first win of the regular season, however. So let’s take a look at their two matches this week and see what they have to do to earn a full three points.
Racing Louisville vs. Houston Dash
Saturday, May 14 at 8 P.M. at Lynn Family Stadium, Louisville, KY (Twitch)
For Saturday’s home opener, Racing will face off against an all too familiar foe: the Houston Dash. The Dash has been uneven at best this season. They lost to Kansas City twice in the Challenge Cup but pulled off a 2-0 victory against them to spoil the Current’s home opener. They beat Racing in each of their two Challenge Cup match-ups so maybe a similar reversal will take place and Louisville can grab a win this time around.
For whatever reason, Racing just hasn’t played well against the Dash. The number one thing they can do to nullify Houston is to simply play more attentively. In both of their last matches, Houston was able to strike and take advantage of mistakes or moments of inattention. Although Racing arguably played better than the Dash for the majority of both games, these lapses were enough for Houston to seize the win.
Houston has also been exceptionally good at drawing penalties lately. So Racing will need to be extra careful in how they deal with driving runs from players like Micheala Abam and Nichelle Prince. Captain Rachel Daly is undefeated in corner kicks. She’s converted six out of six in the NWSL, so Racing doesn’t want to give her another chance to add to that number.
The key to winning will simply be to play smarter and to stay focused. Racing needs to not rush and make sure they’re not passing into needlessly dangerous areas that can be picked off. Racing has been playing increasingly better soccer in almost every match so far in 2022. Their press is improving, their chemistry is growing, and they’re taking better control of their games. But Houston has a nasty habit of winning despite not always looking like the best team on the pitch. The next step for Racing is showing they can play a consistent 90 minutes without major drops in quality. Holding off the Dash and earning a win on Saturday would be a hugely positive step in that direction.
Racing Louisville vs. San Diego Wave
Wednesday, May 18 at 7:30 P.M. at Lynn Family Stadium, Louisville, KY (Paramount +)
Although Racing has struggled against the Dash, they at least know what it’s like to play them. On Wednesday, however, Racing will be entering into completely new territory when they play the San Diego Wave.
The Wave is something of a conundrum. They’re somewhat unexpectedly the top team in the league and the only team with two straight wins. No expansion team has started this strongly before. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wave manages their tight schedule with a home game on Sunday and an away game on Wednesday. Will they travel with their whole team or rest a veteran like Jodie Taylor or Alex Morgan? It seems likely they’ll bring everyone considering they go right from Louisville to North Carolina to play the Courage. Still, it’s possible there could be some major rotation and normal starters may be benched initially.
Although Racing is obviously playing the same tight schedule, they have the benefit of having a deeper bench than ever before. This might help them ride out some of the Wave’s biggest threats. Once again, though, the key to Racing’s victory is in the details. In their last match, the Wave scored two goals off penalties and two more by essentially poaching the ball off unprepared players and bad passes in the back. Racing has been burned like this before. They need to stay attentive to rob San Diego of these chances. If they maintain the same intense pressure they managed against Seattle, they may keep San Diego on the back foot long enough to secure a win.
Building Back Better
Björkegren said the team’s build has progressed to laying down the foundation and putting the walls up. Now they need to focus on putting the roof on and making their structure airtight. Racing has done an increasingly good job of starting off on the front foot. Their high press is increasingly effective and they’re scoring goals consistently. Unfortunately, they’re still letting in more goals than they’re earning. Their goal differential is only -1, but this is a trend they obviously want to end quickly.
Almost all of the goals against Racing have come from moments of disorganization or inattention. Not being prepared for the free kick in Chicago. Trying to dribble past Nichelle Prince in traffic and getting picked off. Giving players out wide too much space and too much time to get off crosses in Seattle. Of course, defensive breakdowns will happen and goals will be let in. The frequency with which this is happening to Racing, however, needs to be corrected. If Racing is going to continue to build out of the back, they need to be as clinical as possible in their passing which is something they haven’t yet been able to achieve. As Björkegren said, the structure is almost entirely in place. Now it’s time to really focus on fixing the details.
After many off-season changes in both coaches and players, there were questions about what Racing would look like this season. Only two games into the regular season, there’s no doubt that this is a better team than before. There’s a stronger sense of self, a greater urgency, and a better understanding of what the team is trying to accomplish. Both of Racing’s previous games were better than their scorelines made them appear. As a result, this feels like a team that’s right on the cusp of winning.
Now, Racing is heading into their first home match and all signs point to the team building towards bigger things. Björkegren said the team is ready to go and is excited about the chance to play at home.
“It’s going to be amazing. I really hope there’s going to be a lot of people there. We will go and do everything we can to win this game and I’m sure we’ll see a team with a lot of energy that will have a fighting spirit for 90 minutes.”