Early Stumbles Trip Up Racing Again
Racing Louisville lost to the North Carolina Courage 3-0 on Saturday in a disappointing home match. This is the second consecutive match where Racing has been shut out after conceding a goal in the first five minutes. Last week, Racing gave up a penalty in the 3′ to Kansas City that was converted for the only goal of the match. On Saturday, they conceded a corner that was converted by North Carolina in the 4′.
For much of Saturday’s match, Racing seemed to struggle to stay in the game at all. After giving up the first goal to the Courage, Racing very nearly gave up a second one just a few minutes later. In the 8′, Racing gave the ball away in front of goal and keeper Katie Lund had to make a diving save to keep the score 1-0. The only really good chance from Racing in the first half came from Jessica McDonald. Her breakaway run along the right side brought her to near the end line, but the resulting shot went off the woodwork. And there were no teammates nearby to collect it and take the second shot. Just before the end of the first half, North Carolina added an insurance goal off a Diana Ordoñez header.
Early in the second half Jessica McDonald once again had a great chance. Her shot actually found the back of the net but was ruled offside. Commentators on the live broadcast questioned the call and photos seem to show she was onside. Without a formal review process, however, nothing could be done. A corner midway through the first half almost led to a goal from Alex Chidiac but her header was saved by keeper Casey Murphy. Racing finally came alive in the last 15 minutes or so of the match, but it was too late. And to add insult to injury, Debinha was able to break away in the last minute of stoppage time and earn a third for the Courage.
By the Numbers
Statistically, this looks like a more even match than it was. For example, Racing created 0.74 xG while the Courage created 0.83 according to StatsBomb. Racing had more corners (6 to 3), crosses (16 to 13), and more shots than North Carolina (12 to 10). These numbers are somewhat misleading, though, because a number of Racing’s shots weren’t particularly dangerous and their crosses didn’t always find marks.
The most telling statistic in this match is possession. Both North Carolina and Racing Louisville strive to play possession-oriented soccer. So when one team dominates possession, the other is left pretty toothless and unable to create much. This is what happened on Saturday. In the first half, the Courage held 61.1% possession to Racing’s 38.9%. If that’s not Racing’s worst possession ever, it’s extremely close. In the second half, Racing was almost able to hold 50% possession. This brought their final total to 43% but still wasn’t enough to build a rhythm and get into the game enough to score.
The team’s identity is clearly one that is 100% focused on the high press and building up from the back. They want to hold possession and control the tempo of games. When it works, it works very well, as seen in their two recent wins. When it doesn’t work, however, Racing seems to have an identity crisis and become toothless.
Right now, one of Racing’s biggest issues seems to be adjustment. They haven’t adjusted well between halves in these last two matches. They also haven’t been able to adjust strategies when their build-ups get stymied. Racing often relies on quick one-touch passes up the sidelines to move the ball forward. Opponents have clearly figured this out and simply swarm any Racing player with the ball in midfield which either turns the ball over or forces Racing to play the ball back. Either way, it stops almost all forward momentum.
So the question that remains is about the sustainability of Racing’s preferred identity. If they start out on the front foot, they do well. If they fall behind, however, teams seem to know how to stop them in their tracks now and it is very hard to recover. It’s good that the team wants to have an identity and a signature high pressing style. But they also need something to fall back on when it isn’t working.
The other adjustment Racing has struggled with is roster adjustments. The backline has changed multiple times over the past seven games. Some of this is due to Covid protocols, but the addition of new players and benching of others has also contributed. Sometimes that has worked fine. Racing’s two consecutive wins were played with different backlines. Recently, however, it’s possible that this constant tweaking and re-tooling of the lineup has impacted the team’s chemistry. Players seem less sure of their roles and positioning. And the movement of players like Addisyn Merrick and Erin Simon from starting in a win, to moving back to the bench, to now falling completely out of the lineup has also been questionable. After the match, coach Kim Björkegren admitted that the lineup will have to be reassessed again. However, he said he needed to focus on what exactly went wrong in this match first.
After the match, the disappointment among players and staff was palpable. Racing went unbeaten in four of their first five matches. Their first loss was only by a slim margin and they fought valiantly for an equalizer throughout. To then go on to lose two games in a row after giving up early goals can’t be good for team morale.
“I’m really disappointed with the start of the game,” said coach Kim Björkegren. “We give away the first goal, and we’re losing 50/50 tackles. We were better in the second half. I think we at least gave it a try. We created enough chances to try to score a goal, but again the quality wasn’t there, for different reasons.
“In the end, the performance was not good enough and the results are not good enough. It’s never OK to lose 3-0. I don’t care if it was home or away. I don’t care about the opponent. It’s never okay.”
Captain Gemma Bonner agreed the start affected the team. “Coming back at home and starting off the way we did – and the performance – we were obviously not happy with it. The more disappointing thing is that it’s come off the back of last week, too. For us, we’ve got to find within the squad what we can do to start games better because I think when we do that, we know there’s chances that we create.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the NWSL is an extremely tough league. Any team can win any match. When teams start getting on a winning streak, it might feel like they’ll never have a totally bad game again. So these last two matches have been a rude reminder of the state of the league. It’s also early enough in the season that Racing has time to make the adjustments they need to become a winning team again.
Still, two losses in a similar fashion need to be addressed immediately by Racing. This is a young team with a lot of talent, but not a lot of league experience. Although the newer additions might have years of professional experience, they’re also new to the league. Work will need to be done to make sure players’ confidence hasn’t been shaken too much.
The next match against Angel City will be the biggest test of Kim Björkegren’s tenure with Racing. Players may have not played their best in the past two matches, but it’s the coach who determines the lineups and who sets the tactics. Already, this team has shown more promise than they did last year. They have already shown that they can be resilient and win matches. They’ve never had to come back from two losses or two shutouts, however, so how they respond in next week’s match will be very telling about the sustainability of their current approach.