On Tuesday night, midfielder Jaelin Howell was adamant that Racing Louisville was close to a win.
“We’re so ready,” said Howell. “We can feel it. We can feel it coming. We’ve been feeling it coming. We know we have a great squad and each game keeps getting better and better.”
Howell’s instincts proved right when Racing Louisville topped the first-place San Diego Wave 1-0 on Wednesday night in Louisville. A free kick by Savannah DeMelo from 27 yards out curled just beyond the reach of Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan. This was rookie DeMelo’s first professional goal although she’s been banging on the door in recent games. Even more impressive is that Canadian national team Olympic gold medalist Sheridan is widely considered to be one of the best in the world. DeMelo’s goal was only the second scored on the Wave all season and it was impressive enough that it made ESPN’s SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays the next morning.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) May 19, 2022
“You can see the fighting spirit,” said coach Kim Björkegren after the match. “Everybody supports. It doesn’t matter if you play 90 minutes or if you play two minutes or if you play no minutes at all. Everybody’s there to support and I’m really proud of this group.”
The win was especially sweet after Covid concerns removed multiple starters from Racing’s lineup and canceled group practice sessions. As in their draw last Saturday against the Houston Dash, Racing was forced to adjust on the fly and lean on their bench to perform. And perform they did. For the second match in a row, defenders Addisyn Merrick and Erin Simon were instrumental in Racing earning a result.
According to defender and co-captain Emily Fox, they learned on short notice that they’d be starting. But, in a testament to their skill, she didn’t think anyone watching would be able to tell they weren’t the regular starters.
“I think they did amazing,” said Fox. “I think they are one of the big differences in our results that are happening, so I’m so proud of them.”
Goalscorer DeMelo agreed. “I’ve always known they’ve had it in them,” she said. “And I think it’s just a good lesson that no matter what happens when you get your chance and you put in out there, anything can happen.”
By the Numbers
On the whole, this was an incredibly even matchup. Both teams held almost exactly even 50% possession. Both teams even had the same number of shots (9).
This really was a whole team win with no player standing head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, everyone contributed when necessary. Eleven out of 15 players had clearances with Erin Simon and, interestingly, Jessica McDonald leading with 5 each. This isn’t too surprising considering the Wave earned 10 corners and several set pieces in threatening areas. As one of the tallest players on Racing, McDonald is critical in defending against set piece plays.
Several players deserve special recognition. Late substitution Sh’Nia Gordon is one of them. Despite coming in at 81′, she came second in tackles with 4. And she won 3 out of those 4. She also managed to complete a key pass and get a shot on target despite only having 9 touches. Jaelin Howell also had a good game. Despite needing a bit of an adjustment period as she entered the league as a rookie, she has been steadily coming into her own. She had the highest number of accurate passes on the team and had a 92% accuracy in passing in the final third. She also led the team in duels with 23 and won 13 of them. In goal, Katie Lund did her part to keep Racing on top despite an increased attack from the Wave in the second half with 2 clearances and 4 saves overall.
Even so, DeMelo rightly earned player of the match thanks to her rocket of a goal. She also created most of Racing’s chances (50% or 3 out of 6) and led both teams in touches (76) and dribbles (6).
As Howell said on Tuesday, Racing has a team on the verge for a long time. The wins were just out of reach but they knew one was coming soon. Now that Racing has broken through to win against the Wave, this feeling hasn’t changed. The draws and even the loss they faced this regular season didn’t seem fair to the team’s improving performance. Since preseason, they’ve gotten better in every game and only look to continue on that trajectory. After the match, Emily Fox was bullish on the team’s potential.
“I think it shows you can’t not include us in talk of hopefully making it into the championship or making it into the final six,” said Fox. “It’s the beginning of the season so I think hopefully teams are kind of like, ok, Louisville has something. We have to watch out for them.”
This comment demonstrates a remarkable change in mentality from last season and even earlier this year. Back in March, after a painful Challenge Cup loss to the Houston Dash, coach Björkegren commented that Racing almost seemed afraid to win. They were hesitant and lost momentum as matches went on. Now, four games into the regular season, he says that mentality has changed and the team is able to work hard through all 90 minutes. Pointing out Racing’s earlier draw against OL Reign that they came close to winning, he said that Racing has shown they can beat any team in the league.
Now Racing will look to continue their growth in their next match against NJ/NY Gotham FC. This is another quick turnaround and will be the team’s third match in only nine days. Racing has never won two matches back-to-back, but right now, it feels like anything is possible with this squad.
For his part, Björkegren said he’d like to take a little time to soak in the win before thinking about the trip to New Jersey.
“Right now I need to enjoy for a couple of hours,” he said with a broad smile. “But [we’ll be] back to earth tomorrow and start to work for the next one.”