Not Because We Lost, But the Way We Lost
As if the scoreline wasn’t enough of an indicator that it was a rough game, the fact one of Racing’s captains opened the post-game press conference by apologizing on behalf of the team for their performance pretty much says everything that needs to be said about Saturday night’s 4-0 loss to the Red Stars.
“First and foremost, I want to apologize to the fans because I think this is not good enough from all of us,” said Nadia Nadim. “It’s almost embarrassing, the performance we had for the first 45 minutes. It’s just not how we want to represent the club and I apologize for all the fans coming out tonight.”
Nadim said that what upset her the most wasn’t the fact the team lost, but the way they lost. Racing gave up three goals in the first 25 minutes, including two incredibly similar set-piece goals. They simply came out flat and stayed flat the entire match. She said that Chicago knew exactly how to break down Racing’s pressure, but Racing failed to do the same with Chicago.
For his part, Björkegren said he was “shocked” by how poorly the team played. Both he and Nadim claimed the team had very productive practices prior to this game and even had a great warm-up period. Björkegren claimed they prepared for this Chicago lineup and these Chicago tactics but once the game got away from them early on, he said it was like the team had a collective “blackout” regarding the game plan.
Co-captain Emily Fox agreed that the team’s biggest failure was in successfully applying the game plan.
“We knew what they were going to play, we knew their key players, we knew what space they were going to exploit,” said Fox. “So I think for us, it’s just kind of like we needed to apply our game plan better. Just applying our game plan better and reading the game.”
One major issue throughout the game was positioning with players straying up too high, giving Chicago too much space to exploit. In particular, Lauren Milliet played as the right full back and went too far forward which gave Pugh far too much space to operate in. There were also issues with the holding midfielders and center backs properly marking Pugh which left her open. With acres of space and no consistent pressure, Pugh was able to do whatever she wanted which burned Louisville badly right from the start.
🗣 "𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘸𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘳𝘦𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘭𝘶𝘣."
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 28, 2022
One move that raised a number of eyebrows was Björkegren’s decision to sub out Alex Chidiac around the half-hour mark for defender Rebecca Holloway. With the team down by three goals at this point, Björkegren said he had no choice but to make a drastic formation change. He said that this move was not reflective of Chidiac’s performance, but instead a way to move the team to three central defenders so one could mark Pugh at all times while still having two sitting back.
“We probably stopped it a little bit with that sub,” said Björkegren of the decision who said that he was still very unhappy with the result even if they did manage to stop the bleeding somewhat.
Ultimately Björkegren said there’s blame to be put on coaching staff and players alike for the performance, but no matter how or why it happened, it was unacceptable.
“We’re gonna lose games in the future as well,” he said he told the team after the match, “but we can’t lose a game 4-0 at home. That’s not okay.”
By the Numbers
Frankly, any numbers in this match could make Racing look like they performed better than they did. They earned 0.63 xG overall compared to Chicago’s 1.47. At least in chances created, Racing did improve significantly in the second half with .54 of their total created in the final 45 minutes. A couple of unlucky shots went off the woodwork including one that some speculate looked like a goal, but, regardless, these numbers don’t come close to indicating how dominant Chicago actually was.
Also, Chicago only has 1.47 xG for four goals arguably shows that Racing handed them easier goals than they should have. These were no daring, tight-angled breathtaking shots. These were two breakaway goals from a poorly marked forward with speed and two badly marked headers from set pieces that should have been stopped. Racing has had consistent defensive issues – particularly in central defense – and this game exposed this more starkly than any before it.
I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I Sure Know Where I’ve Been
Skating Away (On The Thin Ice of a New Day)
One of the hardest yet most important things to do after a match like this is to look at it realistically.
This was a hard knock to bear, but awful painful losses happen. Last season, Racing lost 5-0 to North Carolina and then 3-0 to Portland in one week. They topped it off with a devastating 4-0 loss to the Dash that ended Racing’s playoff chances. This season, by contrast, Racing’s worst loss was a 3-0 stinger to North Carolina in June. There hasn’t been another loss Racing has faced all season where they’ve lost by more than one point, so this 4-0 score is surprising for a team that’s been highly competitive all season and that surprise makes it more painful.
It’s also important to note that other teams have had equally bad and even worse losses. For example, Houston smashed Orlando 5-0 earlier this season and then Portland smashed Houston 4-0 a few weeks later. Gotham beat the Pride 3-0 and then got smoked 4-0 by San Diego less than a week later. And these scores actually bring up the other big point: Other teams have faced similar losses, but they’ve gone on to win other games. Racing, quite notably, has not.
Racing has been skating by all season. They’ve been just good enough to become stuck in a rut without needing desperate change. This isn’t to say they haven’t shown progress or growth because they have, but it is to say that they’ve seemingly become too comfortable in being competitive without having to find that extra drive to push into a win. As a result, they were likely either going to break through and win or fall hard on their faces. Unfortunately, they fell on their faces.
What matters now is how they react to this loss. According to Nadim, the players can respond in one of two ways. She said, “You can put your head down between your legs and go ‘awww’ and find excuses or you try to use this as fuel for the next game and be motivated to be better. I really hope that all of us, myself included, are going to do the second thing and try to do better.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, but with only five games left to play, the best-case scenario for the team is that this serves as a wake-up call. If it sends a shock through their system, hopefully, they can come back stronger from it. And if they don’t, then there might be bigger issues at play that will need to be dealt with.
Why You Gotta Make Things so (Over)Complicated?
After the match, Emily Fox spoke of the team’s mentality and what she saw as the team’s biggest block to moving forward.
“I think we’re overcomplicating it and I think we care so much and we wanna show everyone, show the crowd, how good we are. And we have a lot of young players on the team and I think that’s the final piece. Not waiting for another player to do it like you have to be the one to do it type mentality. I think that just takes time and experience, so I think it will come eventually.”
Fox hit the nail on the head with this assessment. The team perpetually makes things harder for themselves than they have to. They don’t make the smartest passing choices. They overrun opponents frequently. They hesitate and don’t let play flow naturally because they’re thinking instead of acting. They try to individually solve the whole team’s problems themselves instead of coming together as a unit and figuring it out jointly. All these things are something young players who are feeling a ton of pressure to perform well do, as Fox said. Racing relies very heavily on inexperienced players or players who are new to the league and it shows in times like this.
The Boss of Me
Saying these issues are a symptom of them being young isn’t an excuse, of course. This is something Racing will have to be proactive in figuring out if they’re ever going to get past it. The captains and veterans should help with it and so should the coach.
As mentioned above, Björkegren said both coaches and players bear the responsibility for Saturday’s results. The coaches come up with a game plan and it is the players’ job to execute it. Whether it was the right game plan is, of course, debatable, but if the players can barely execute it, it’s hard to see if it was the right approach or not in an ideal situation.
However, Björkegren said he was shocked with how poorly Racing played and, in particular, how flat they were initially. After several recent games where Racing gave up a very early goal, this should not be shocking to anyone. Nadim herself said she wasn’t shocked because it’s a known issue with the group. This is an active trend and it needs to not be treated like something unexpected every time it happens. They also had miserable defense during set pieces despite facing this same issue last match. This needs to be something the coaching staff focuses heavily on ASAP because even a 2-0 loss is far more palatable than a 4-0 loss with three goals in 25 minutes.
For her part, Fox said the bad starts are being discussed with the coaching staff and amongst the players and she said quite explicitly that she feels it’s more a player mentality issue than a coaching issue.
“I think,” she said, “it’s more of a team thing rather than a coach thing in terms of, you know, mentality and not letting them, you know, score on us in the first 10-15 [minutes].”
Ultimately, Fox said that they know intellectually what they have to do, but they need to actually learn to apply it and, again, that will come with experience. And while Fox’s opinion is that it’s a team mentality issue and it’s understandable that the players bear some responsibility, it’s ultimately the coach who is responsible for guiding the team’s mentality. This is the squad that Björkegren chose to assemble after major turnover, so he needs to take more responsibility for their performance, also. This is mostly his chosen defensive line. He’s choosing to play Lauren Milliet out of position against one of the top forwards in the world. He’s using Fox who is one of the most dynamic defenders as a center back in a three-back.
This wasn’t one player having a bad game and throwing things off for everybody. This was everyone coming out on the completely wrong foot and getting bowled over. While the team obviously put in a poor performance both individually and as a group, the coaching staff also put in a poor performance if they came out looking that off from the get-go.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 28, 2022
Nothing to Lose
The fact Racing put in arguably its worst performance ever on Saturday was made even more heartbreaking because it was a night of celebration for the club. Fill the Fam was an event that had been promoted for weeks and brought large numbers of first-time viewers into the stadium to watch the team. As a result, Racing did break their attendance record despite being amidst an 11 (now 12) game winless streak. That’s a huge accomplishment and the entire club should be proud of it. Despite the disappointment of such a poor performance on such a big night, it shows that if Racing can right their ship and become a winning team in the future, there is clearly a large swath of fans ready to cheer them on.
As for the rest of the season, Fox remained positive about what the team can do with their final five matches.
“I think we are out of playoffs and so that was a goal for us and not being able to make it, it’s tough, but with that, we have nothing to lose.”
She said that the team can find motivation in giving teams that are aiming for the playoffs or high seeds like Angel City and Portland the hardest time they can and play the disrupter.
“Hopefully, with this kind of freedom,” said Fox, “it gives other rookies and players a chance to play and for us to kind of fix those things that we couldn’t execute to make playoffs.”
Thanks to a Washington Spirit draw and a Gotham loss, Racing is still somewhat surprisingly in 10th place. With a couple of wins, they might move up a spot or two, but if they don’t start getting points soon they’re at risk of dropping all the way to the bottom. Still, as Fox said, the weight of playoffs off their backs might end up being more liberating than anything. In this match, fans were able to see Taylor Malham get her first substantial minutes and she did well. There’s still a lot that can be earned in this season even if Racing’s biggest hopes are now almost entirely out of reach.