Racing Louisville was routed for the second game in a row on Saturday night. After falling 4-0 to the Chicago Red Stars last week at home, this week Racing fell 5-1 to the Courage in Cary, North Carolina.
In an ongoing trend for Racing, the Courage was able to score early and get their first goal in under 10 minutes. Instead of rallying, Racing struggled to put together a coherent response. Racing would go down by two by the end of the half and by three by only the 51st minute. Nadia Nadim was able to capitalize off a bad pass in the back and single-handedly put Racing on the board in the 71st minute and, for a moment, it seemed like Racing at least had a way back into the game. But then Racing gave up two more goals which completely eliminated any comfort Nadim’s goal may have brought.
“It was disappointing from us,” said captain Gemma Bonner who acknowledged that North Carolina is a strong team on a hot streak. “It wasn’t good enough. Especially how we finished the game.”
As good as North Carolina might historically be, however, there’s no denying that these past two weeks have shown a dire drop in form for Racing, if not a complete regression. Racing started out the season well and played most of the season competitively and consistently. They weren’t getting wins, but they were fighting to earn lots of draws and, if they lost, it was by only a goal. They were a hard team to beat and held a red-hot Houston Dash to a 0-0 draw despite going down a player in the first half just three games ago. There were clear signs of progress in terms of their improvement from season to season. After these past two games, however, it feels as though any of that early progress has been wiped clean.
As a result of this match, Racing has now officially been eliminated from playoff contention even though it has long been unlikely that they could earn a top-six spot. Although NJ/NY’s Gotham’s loss kept Racing in 11th place, it’s hard to imagine them moving up from the bottom of the table. It’s also increasingly easy to see how they could fall into the very last place before the end of the season. As a result, players say they have to look to next season and build chemistry while they can.
“This year it’s not been good enough,” said Bonner after the match. “We’re a young side and we’ve learned some harsh lessons and we have to keep learning but we’ve now got a few games to go and put into practice what we’re training on and build to finish the season strong to go into next year.”
By the Numbers
The fact of the matter is, that as bad as a 5-1 loss is, this match could have easily been even worse. The Courage was in complete control of almost the entire game. They dominated possession with Racing earning a measly 35% – quite likely their worst in franchise history. Their passing accuracy was at 70% – also quite possibly the worst in franchise history. North Carolina had 22 shots with 12 on goal compared to Racing’s 5 with 2 on target.
The only way these numbers could be even slightly palatable was if Racing managed to pull off a defensive block that kept North Carolina out of goal. If they lost 2-0 or 2-1, that’d be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be this incredibly ugly. The bottom line is that the players, with the exception of Nadim who took advantage of a gift from the Courage, didn’t show up for this match. They seemed defeated from the first whistle and never found any motivation. Injuries, such as the concussion Emily Fox got during the international break and the head injury Julia Lester got mid-match against North Carolina, certainly didn’t set up Racing for their best game, but they had no excuse to be as flat and disconnected as they were, as reflected by their awful passing accuracy and only 298 passes all match – especially compared to the Courage’s 555.
For most of this season, Racing has held roughly a -6 goal differential which is much better than the double-digit one they carried most of 2021. In just these last two matches, however, they’ve gone from a -6 to a -14 differential which will make it virtually impossible for them to climb the standings as goal differential is the first tiebreaker after points earned.
Turnover and Over and Over Again
This is not the scrappy, hard-fighting team from last season and earlier this season. Previously, they were a fun team to watch and cheer for because they played with heart and determination up until the last whistle. One bad result could have been a blip from a team tired after the Women’s Cup. It could have been fuel to come out stronger in the next match, but that clearly hasn’t happened. Two losses in a row by four goals is a huge red flag for the franchise. They might not have had a realistic shot at the playoffs, but there are plenty of ways they could have made these games a success. Strong defensive cohesion. Getting stuck in and making big plays. Creating chances even if they don’t result in goals. All of these things could have still shown some degree of progress, but they were virtually non-existent all match. The players seemed unmotivated and beaten before the first whistle.
There’s no easy answer to who is responsible for Racing’s recent collapse. As mentioned above, the players do bear some of the burdens – something Gemma Bonner acknowledged post-match. Although she admitted that maybe the language barrier between coach and players played a minor role, she said that if players don’t understand exactly what’s expected of them, they need to ask questions and communicate with each other and the coaching staff about what’s going on. In response to a question from WHAS‘s Tyler Greever, she also said that the team needs to communicate better on the pitch as well. That they need to be better about speaking up and helping each other out when things go off the rails – which is ironic, because Bonner said that, off-the-pitch and in the locker room, they get all get along so incredibly well.
“That’s probably why it’s so frustrating,” Bonner said. “We’re a close team. I think it would be very different if we weren’t in a happy environment and all that kind of stuff. But for us, we know we have that right, but it’s ultimately about what you do on the pitch.”
Ultimately, however, it’s hard to put much blame on the players who have been dealing with an ever-changing roster all season. Since June, Racing has had an immense amount of turnover which has kept them from creating any steady lineup or formation to build chemistry in. Many players have also had to adjust to different roles all over the pitch, too. Savannah DeMelo and Lauren Milliet have yet to find any consistency in any single position which is a disservice to them and their entire team. The team regularly points to the fact that this is a young team in both age and experience and the NWSL and that’s fine and it surely has caused there to be a major learning curve, but that’s also squarely on the shoulders of the coach and front office that built this roster.
I’ve long advocated for the idea that Björkegren needs more time to build his system and work with the roster he’s created. After these last two performances, however, I’m of the increasing mind that that’s no longer tenable. If Racing had lost one of these games 2-0 or 3-1 or even 5-3, I would probably still advocate for him staying and having another chance, but these losses have been catastrophic. And that’s primarily because there’s absolutely zero indication that anything is going to change in the team’s final four games against Orlando, Portland, Los Angeles, and Kansas City. And so would it be less damaging to get rid of Björkegren now instead of putting off what seems like yet another rebuild for another year? At this point, it seems increasingly likely. Björkegren seems incapable of motivating or inspiring these players or making changes that create any meaningful impact on a match once the tides have turned against Racing. Even if his tactics were working, the fact they’ve come out so flat for so many matches is a major mark against him.
The most ridiculous part is, from the beginning of the season, Racing’s biggest issues have been defense and producing goals. Despite an insane level of roster turnover including four new defenders and three new attackers acquired during the season itself, what are Racing’s current biggest issues? Defense and producing goals. Björkegren has even struggled to get the best out of his proven players. Emily Fox has not been used as effectively as she was last season. This season she tends to make the safer back pass instead of charging forward in an overlapping run as she does so effortlessly on the national team. Is that mental or is that how she’s being coached? It’s hard to tell, but it’s clearly not working. Jess McDonald is one of the most prodigious goal scorers and assists creators in league history and she hasn’t been able to find her footing in Louisville. Once again, is that mental? Is that the result of being on a brand new team? Hard to tell, but the fact it hasn’t improved over the course of the season is a problem.
Putting all the blame on Björkegren, however, would still be making him something of a scapegoat. The front office is just as responsible for this as anyone. It is the club’s style and philosophy that he is using to guide this team and their roster building. Soccer Holding’s said they value being a high-pressing, possession-oriented club, but when is the last time you saw any semblance of that style or philosophy executed well on the pitch? Racing’s leadership seems far too concerned with who they want the team to be versus who they actually have and what they actually are. They seem to want to force players to play certain roles and fit into certain tactics and, if they don’t, then they’ll go out and swap in others that supposedly do. After all, Ebony Salmon didn’t press well enough so Racing sold her to Houston for a good amount of money. The end result of this is Houston is practically guaranteed a spot in the playoffs and Racing has a lot of money and next to no goals. Even worse, they then went and got other very talented players that supposedly fit this style, and nothing has gotten better. In fact, it’s gotten worse which should clearly demonstrate that this isn’t a player problem, it’s a leadership problem.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
There’s no question Soccer Holdings knows how to build a winning team – at least on the men’s side. Louisville City has been a bona fide success from their first season, so it makes sense that they’d be confident they could replicate that success on the women’s side. However, time has proven that that is not the case and there are a few reasons why.
Everyone who started Louisville City was familiar with and had worked in men’s soccer. They knew the culture, they had the networks in place, and they already had a blueprint available for how to run a successful USL side because the franchise had been moved from Orlando to Louisville with co-owner Wayne Estopinal as a major throughline. They also had a full staff dedicated 100% to the success of this single team. Racing, however, has none of these things. They were started from scratch, with no one on board who had any previous experience with women’s soccer or the NWSL, and much of the staff was split between Lou City and Racing. As a result, they’ve made some catastrophic stumbles, like hiring Christy Holly as the inaugural head coach.
It’s clear Soccer Holdings wants to do well by their players. They provide excellent accommodations that go above and beyond league requirements, but the fact of the matter is, that they don’t have the in-house experience to successfully run a first-division women’s soccer team. They think they can just take Lou City’s philosophy and identity – be a high-pressing, possession-oriented club – and just press it onto Racing and have it work. Clearly, it hasn’t. It’s obvious this team needs more NWSL-experienced staff dedicated to running it and getting it to the next level, because they currently have none. The NWSL is a unique league with plenty of strict rules about free agency and player rights that don’t exist elsewhere. Women’s soccer is distinct culturally and in terms of networking, so if there’s no one in club management familiar with it, it’s setting the team up for failure. The absolute best thing the club can do is, at a minimum, hire an NWSL-experienced general manager to oversee all of Racing’s staff and every aspect of the team management. That’s probably even more critical than turning over the coaching staff at this point.
As Michael Shaw said in his recap of Saturday’s match, this team has no identity. Or, rather, they have the wrong identity. No one seems to be looking at the players currently on the roster and figuring out how to get the best out of them. It increasingly feels like players are just being moved around in a desperate bid to find some magic combination that’ll work. The fact of the matter is, that Racing has immensely talented players. They just need to start figuring out how to play them in a way that emphasizes their strengths over the club’s chosen style.
It’s absolutely fair for a club to have a favored system and strive to establish a whole-club philosophy. It’s also fair to expect a coach to build a roster and to have it take time for new players to settle onto a team. But when things fall apart as badly as they have these two weeks, there’s clearly more going on. It’s time for Racing’s leadership to take a knee and admit that maybe some of the most needed changes aren’t on the roster but in the team’s leadership.