Racing Louisville Battles OL Reign to a Bloody, Hard-Fought 1-1 Draw

A Fighting Spirit

There can be no question that Racing Louisville left it all on the field to earn their 1-1 draw against OL Reign on Tuesday night.

It looked like it was all over for Racing in just the first minutes of the match as OL Reign managed to score off of a corner in their very first possession before Racing had even touched the ball. Still, despite extremely lopsided possession and chances in Seattle’s favor, Racing held on tooth and nail and even came close to getting the upper hand by the end of the match. It was an ugly, physical game at times with both Emily Fox and Gemma Bonner getting bloodied up in the first half, but Racing showed they have the grit to grind out results even in the toughest circumstances.

The unquestionable star of the show was Racing’s goalkeeper Katie Lund who earned a league-record-tying 12 saves on the night including several acrobatic double saves. At the half-season point, Lund also led the league in several stats including expected goals prevented (-5.30) and goalkeeper goals added (+5.44). With Racing not doing so well it wasn’t obvious just how solid she’s been. After Tuesday’s performance, there should be no questions remaining about her skills in goal.

“I want to do whatever I can for this team,” said Lund after the match. “I know how hard this team works and I want to say it just comes naturally, but it was a good night. I was feeling it. And I’m proud of the team for fighting.”

Coach Kim Björkegren praised Lund for her efforts after the match and called her a “great goalkeeper.” After Lund made a mistake that partially caused the second goal against Portland on Friday, he said tonight was payback for her in that she was able to show just how skilled she was in goal.

Another player Björkegren praised for getting some payback was Kirsten Davis who scored her first professional goal. He said they talked before the match that she was due for one soon after coming achingly close in Racing’s recent match against the San Diego Wave. Against OL Reign, she had a couple of excellent chances before finally putting the equalizer in the back of the net after a solo run that beat both defender Alana Cook and keeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce in first-half stoppage time.

“All I remember is dribbling towards the goal and shooting it,” said Davis of her first goal. “It was honestly such a surreal moment all I remember is celebrating after the shot. More importantly, we wanted to win the game so that’s the disappointing part, but it was fun to get my first goal.”

Even without the win, Björkegren said that this is a game Racing can feel good about and he said, overall, he was proud of the team’s fighting spirit despite going down a goal so early.

“Today was not the game where we’ll cry over one point,” he said. “We played against such a good team, so I think we need to be happy with one point even if we always want to win.”

When asked about the team’s ever-dwindling playoff chances, Björkegren was realistic. He said he understands that to be in the top six means that Racing will probably have to win every single game they have left and that’s unrealistic. Even so, the team needs to have that goal ahead of them so they can continue to improve instead of just considering the season a wash this early on.

As for the players, they continue to believe in the team and what they’re capable of. They know they have work to do and need to figure out how to play a full 90-minute game, but the belief remains. Said Katie Lund: “We are a good team and you could see that tonight. We are hanging with this team full of stars but it comes down to the first five minutes. We dug ourselves a hole and we need to be better with that.”

By the Numbers

The stats for Tuesday are awfully reminiscent of last season’s Racing. For instance, Seattle absolutely dominated in xG with 2.11 to Louisville’s 0.4. They had 25 shots with 11 on goal compared to Racing’s 6 shots with only 1 on target. They dominated possession 60.8% to Louisville’s 39.2%. Seattle had 80% pass accuracy compared to Racing’s 68%. In other words, Racing was thoroughly dominated statistically.

The fact Racing was able to hold the Reign off despite such lopsided stats shows just how hard individual players worked. As mentioned, Lund had a league-record-tying 12 saves which are remarkable enough to mention twice. Julia Lester started as an outside back for the first time and acquitted herself well despite dealing with Megan Rapinoe all night. She won all 4 of her tackles which was the highest number for both teams. Lester also won possession 11 times.

Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo both had good nights, also. Howell won 4 out of 6 of her aerial duels and 8 out of 15 of her duels. Howell also tied Emily Fox for the team-highest passing accuracy of any Racing starter at 87%. Of both teams, the only starter who had a higher passing accuracy was Jess Fishlock with 90%. DeMelo once again both teams in dribbles and had the most successful dribbles of any player on either team. She won 8 out of 18 duels, won possession 10 times, and had 2 interceptions.

Gemma Bonner also had one of her best nights ever with Racing. She had the most clearances of any player with 10 which almost doubles the next closest player, Satara Murray, who had 6. Bonner also had 2 interceptions. Stats don’t show everything, however, and what they miss is how hard Bonner went in to win every ball and make every play she could. She went in so hard for a header she needed stitches in her scalp at half-time after colliding with Cook. She also got smacked in the face by Rapinoe and kept fighting.

Emily Fox dribbles past Megan Rapinoe / Image courtesy EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports

A Quick Response

In many ways, this match was a strong reaction to Friday night’s match against the Thorns. Just like Tuesday’s match, Racing went down very early against the Thorns but battled back to find an equalizer off a player earning their first NWSL goal. Unlike Tuesday, however, Racing dropped the ball – literally – on Friday which allowed Portland a chance to come back and score.

The fact they were able to be put in the same position with a similarly hard-to-beat team and fight out a draw is a strong sign that the team’s mentality and belief in themselves remain strong despite the long stretch without a win. There are still questions that need answering, like why is Racing starting every game so sluggishly? And why can’t they finish their chances? Why are they so incapable of playing long balls successfully? Those questions still need to be addressed, but if the team’s fighting spirit remains intake, there’s still time to work out those issues.

Of these questions, the one that Racing most needs to address is why they are starting each game so poorly. In these last two matches, if Racing had held off that first goal but everything else remained the same, they would have four points instead of just one. Even if they still struggle to play a full 90 minutes consistently, they still need to start off better. This is something the team seems well aware of.

“I think we started the way we didn’t want to and we talked about that awhile,” said Davis. “That is something we’re going to have to change. We keep saying it and saying it, but now we need to change it. And I think as the game went on we were able to make a statement and play like we know how and now we need to carry that into Friday.”

Jaelin Howell / Image courtesy Connor Cunningham

Looking Ahead

On Friday, Racing will take on the Washington Spirit in another match against a fast-paced team with high-scoring potential. The Spirit are on an extended winless streak, also, but they’re still scoring goals. They most recently drew the North Carolina Courage 3-3 in a wild, energetic match. If Racing is going to beat them, they’ll have to stay focused and as organized defensively as they were on Tuesday.

It’ll be interesting to see what lineup Racing puts forward on Friday. On Tuesday there were some interesting differences with the backline in yet another new combination. This time, Emily Fox and Julia Lester were on the wings with Satara Murray and Gemma Bonner pairing in the center. Murray definitely earned another start after her strong performance against the Thorns, but it was bold to put Lester in a completely new position on the wing. It seemed to have worked fairly well, considering the score remained 1-1, but the fact of the matter is OL Reign and the Thorns both got off more shots than they should have. As great as it is that Lund made 12 saves, she shouldn’t have had to.

Looking at the offense, it’s great to see Davis break through and score after coming so close so many times. She’s an excellent No. 9 with Nadia Nadim still working back to full health. Even so, Racing needs to start getting more shots on frame. They had some excellent chances on both Friday and Tuesday. Against the Thorns, keeper Bella Bixby was able to make some excellent saves that other keepers wouldn’t have been able to make. But on Tuesday, Racing only got one shot on goal against Seattle. While that one goal was all it took to secure the point, they still need to be able to do better than that. Lund won’t be able to make 12 saves every match, so if Racing is going to start to win, they need to figure out how to get through the block they’re facing and get some goals.

The last time Racing met the Spirit, Racing charged back from a 2-0 deficit to earn a draw. Hopefully, Racing won’t need to work their way out of a hole this time and can use the home-field advantage to earn a win in what should be a winnable game. A win might not put them into playoff contention, but it can help them climb the standings and at least hold onto 9th place. More than anything, it would give Racing the reinforcement they need about how much progress they’re making. Game after game they play well but drop points. As the games tick past faster and faster as the season wanes, it’s now or never for Racing to live up to the potential they’ve shown all season.

Bekki Morgan

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