The Best Laid Plans
Before he could even begin discussing Racing Louisville’s Saturday night match against the Houston Dash, coach Kim Björkegren had to make one thing clear: “I’ve been a coach for 15 years. It’s probably around 600 games. But today was the most difficult one.”
The match’s game plan was completely blown apart only hours before kickoff when one player tested positive for Covid and three more came down with fevers. According to Björkegren, the first ill player was identified around 2 P.M. on Saturday and the last somewhere around 6 P.M – only two hours before kickoff. What’s worse is all four players – Rebecca Holloway, Gemma Bonner, Freja Olofsson, and Julia Lester – were planned starters. Losing nearly 40% of your starters mere hours before the match was set to start is a very hard blow to absorb. And, yet, Racing Louisville did just that and even pulled a point from it.
Racing held the Houston Dash to a scoreless draw for the first 45 minutes. Despite Louisville having the best chances in the early second half, the Dash got on the board first. In the 77′, a corner kick was initially blocked but Nichelle Prince was there to head in a rebound. Instead of folding, Racing found a quick equalizer. In the 82′, Lauren Milliet sent in a ball from the top of the box to Jessica McDonald who headed it home past the arms of Houston keeper Jane Campbell. Despite Racing’s Ebony Salmon getting the only remaining shot on goal all match, the game stayed level at 1-1.
“Normally, I want to win a home game against Houston,” said Björkegren, “but their fighting spirit, everything they [did] today…I’m extremely proud of them.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 15, 2022
By the Numbers
After the match, Björkegren said that despite their huge losses, Racing was the better team today. Game statistics do bear that out to some extent.
Racing clearly dominated possession with almost 60%. It’s worth noting that so far in 2022, Racing has done a much better job of controlling matches and holding possession. Throughout 2021, Racing often had significantly less than 50% possession. The fact that they’re able to hold close to 50% against teams like OL Reign and nearly 60% against teams like the Dash bodes well for Racing.
Racing also had their best passing accuracy all year – and possibly ever – with 81%. Six players had passing accuracy over 80% with Emily Fox and Erin Simon having 91% each.
Both teams had a similar number of shots with 11 for Houston compared to 10 for Racing. Once again, Racing was edged fairly significantly in shots on goal although both teams weren’t particularly impressive. The Dash managed 4 on goal compared to Racing’s 2. The number of shots is another positive sign of growth for Racing. Last season, they were regularly outshot and sometimes by outrageous differentials. Think of Portland outshooting them 29 to 4.
In their first three games of 2021, Racing had an average of 9 shots per game with only 1.5 shots on goal. Compare this to allowing their opponents an average of 23 shots and 8 on target. Frankly, those are dire numbers. Now, in 2022, Racing has had an average of 13 shots and 4 on target compared to their opponent’s averaging 12 shots with 5 on target. That’s almost even, so the difference between 2021 and 2022 is night and day. Racing will have to work hard to maintain this parity in shots and shots on target when playing teams like the Washington Spirit and the Portland Thorns. But the fact they’ve maintained it against teams like the Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign points towards major improvement.
All of Racing’s players had a good game, but Savannah DeMelo had another standout game. This is the second match in a row the rookie has topped statistics in several areas. She led both teams in duels with 16 and won a whopping 75% of them. DeMelo also had the most touches of any player in the match. In another interesting stat, she was the most fouled player on the pitch on both teams. Clearly, her ability to win duels and push opponents off the ball got under Houston’s skin. She also came extremely close to scoring off a set piece for the second match in a row, but her shot went just a hair wide of the far post.
Ultimately, this was a very close and even match, as the scoreline shows. Racing outplayed Houston in several areas like possession and controlling the game which is even more remarkable considering the last-second personnel losses Louisville faced. The fact this team was able to lose four out of 11 starters only hours before the match and still fight to a draw against a team at full strength is a very positive sign. And the fact they pulled even after going down a goal speaks to the strength, depth, and resiliency of this squad.
After the match, Emily Fox said that she credits this success to Racing’s growing chemistry and confidence. She said the mentality in the locker room and on the pitch has only gotten “better and better” and that was demonstrated in how well the last-minute starters fit into the lineup.
“I think, luckily, we have really great depth and Jess [McDonald] had a great speech before we came out and I think really we’re all there for each other.” She also said that the players who were called into the starting lineup “proved they deserve to be on the team and proved they deserve to get a chance to start.”
As for the replacements, Erin Simon and Addisyn Merrick both stood out. After the match, Björkegren said he thought they did really well. He had confidence in the two defenders playing together because they are paired together in practice so often. Simon, in particular, stood out playing as a center back replacement for Gemma Bonner when she usually plays out wide. She had a critical save in the first half that kept Racing from going down early. Merrick had the most passes on the team and had an 84% passing accuracy.
“You just see the depth we have on this team and how incredible everyone is and it’s been amazing to see those who haven’t played much,” said Jessica McDonald, who wore the captain’s armband for the match. She said Simon, in particular, “was a brick wall” and has what it takes to start. She said the same of Merrick who had the mental strength to play well despite being called in last minute. “For the two of them to play really well together, that just shows you the level of professionalism with these young players and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
It’s All Coming Together
Racing is now one of the few teams in the league without a win. Only OL Reign and Kansas City are in the same boat. Racing currently sits in 10th place in the league on top of both those teams.
Racing’s 0-1-2 record is misleading, however. Statistics and the eyeball test show they’re an improved team in all matches. Strong cases can also be made that they were actually the dominant team in most games.
After Saturday’s match, both the coach and players were asked if something was missing that was keeping them from earning a win. In all cases, the pushback was strong. When asked what was missing, Björkegren said with a wry smile that they were missing four starters and all the planning they’d done to prepare for this match. He continued: “That’s what you do in the week: you prepare for the game and we couldn’t do it because everything changed in just a few hours.”
When asked a similar question, Emily Fox said, “I don’t think anything’s missing. I think really it’s just us finding our groove, finding our rhythm, and just capitalizing on our chances, so I think we have it in us.” She said the drive and mentality are there. Now, it’s just a matter of finishing their chances. The Challenge Cup allowed the team to build chemistry and now, according to Fox, “it’s all starting to come together.”
This is the second match in a row Racing has gone against teams while missing key players. Last week, Emily Fox was out with a minor muscle strain and Racing still managed a draw against OL Reign. This week, three out of four defenders were knocked out including regular captain Gemma Bonner. And still, Racing earned a point in each match.
However, Racing needs to start winning matches. While it’s excellent to get two points out of two matches where key players were missing, they need to start putting results on the board. Early games in the NWSL always bring somewhat unexpected results, but Racing needs to start getting three points soon or they’re going to start falling behind.
Finishing remains the biggest issue. Players are sending in a huge number of crosses (over 30 in this match alone) but they’re not connecting with players in the box. Racing seems so keen to get things done that they rush things once they get to the final third and they end up squandering their chances. They’ve improved in shots, they’ve improved on set pieces, they’ve improved on crosses – now they need to put these chances away. But, once again, the fact Racing was able to eke out any points at all in these last two matches is a huge accomplishment. If Fox and McDonald are adamant the team is progressing, then fans should have full confidence that results will come as the team settles and, hopefully, faces games with fewer disruptions. Also, there’s little Racing can do when it comes to unplanned roster disruptions. Events like this are inevitable for all teams and Racing will have to demonstrate their growth by pulling results out of tough situations like this.
Next, Racing will take on the San Diego Wave this Wednesday. The Wave is off to an incredibly strong start and has won all three of their regular season matches. It’s unknown whether any of Racing’s ill players will be ready to play with such a quick turnaround. Björkegren said that the team will have to monitor the situation and wait and see. In the meantime, they’ll have to make the best game plan they can with lingering uncertainties. With Racing feeling buoyed after their draw with Houston, hopefully, they can take that energy into their next match and finally get the win they’ve been searching for.