The Story of the Season
On Friday night, Racing Louisville earned yet another draw in their match against the Washington Spirit. This 1-1 result is the seventh tie for Racing this season and also marks their 10th straight match without a win. In that time, they earned five draws and suffered five defeats. They have, however, drawn five of their last seven matches.
“I think we deserved three points today,” said Racing coach Kim Björkegren. Nadia Nadim got on the board first in the 52nd minute, but an unfortunate bounce and a possible missed handball call led to Spirit pulling even just 12 minutes later. Once again, it was a brief momentary bit of bad luck and inconsistency that led to Racing dropping points. “It’s similar to more or less the whole season. I think we deserve a little bit more than we get right now.”
Deserving or not, Racing did, on the whole, play a very good game. They stayed neck-and-neck with the Spirt with Nadim testing keeper Aubrey Kinsbury early and Trinity Rodman doing the same with Racing’s Katie Lund. Both sides had ample shots and both teams did a good job of warding off their opponents. In addition to Lund, Jessica McDonald came in as a substitute and made an excellent run back to stop a late Washington attack at the last second.
In this match, Racing actually did something they’ve hardly ever done all season: they changed formation. They played in a 3-5-2 formation with Emily Fox, Gemma Bonner, and Satara Murray making up the back line while Julia Lester and Lauren Milliet acted as wing-backs. Ultimately, this change seemed to work for Racing. Although the Spirit had the majority of possession, they had a hard time breaking past midfield and held possession primarily in their own half. All in all, the players were fans of the move.
“I think it was a smart move by us,” said Lester of the formation change. “We needed the numbers in the middle. I think it definitely can catch people off guard for sure.”
Goal-scorer Nadim also approved, also, and said, “I think that was a good move. I think in previous games I’d kind of been alone on the top.”
She said that when a striker is isolated at the top, as they tend to be in a 4-2-3-1 – Racing’s typical formation – the striker may win headers and win shots but everyone else can be too far away to assist them. She credited the move that allowed her to line up next to Kirsten Davis as one of the reasons the two were able to combine for the goal.
The fact Racing is starting to mix things up tactically is a good sign. They’ve been very stagnant in sticking to the 4-2-3-1 formation and were becoming far too predictable.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 6, 2022
Coming Out Hot
Another good sign is the team came out of the gates strong. Considering they gave up very early goals in their previous two matches this week, it was an improvement to see the team actually come out on the front foot. This is something both Lester and Nadim said the team had discussed at length and that they were determined to correct. Ultimately, that’s exactly what they did. If they could have cleaned up their finishing better in the first half, they could have gone ahead significantly earlier than they did. Although Racing is scoring, keeping that finishing touch consistent has been a struggle for Racing. With how they’re playing, they need to be able to get at least two goals a game if not three to actually earn wins. It’s a tall task, but something they’ll need to figure out in the form they’re currently in.
Even with the formation change and the change in early mentality, the game was ultimately a disappointment for the team.
Nadim said the team is frustrated that they’re playing well enough to win only to lose concentration or have small mistakes push them over the edge into earning all three points. “It’s the story of our season so far,” she said after the match.
Lester agreed but said the team is still united in working together and seeing the season through. “It’s tough, but the chemistry off the field has definitely been helping us on the field and that’s something we’ve really come together for.”
She said they’ve agreed to push harder individually and as a group to find that elusive win. “Obviously, the result is the way that it is, but we’re still pushing hard until the very end.”
By the Numbers
As mentioned above, the Spirit did hold the majority of possession with 58% to 42% but a lot of that was within their own half. The match appeared to be mostly evenly matched when viewing it and stats hold that up with both teams having roughly the same number of shots and shots on target (LOU: 13/4; WAS: 12/6). More tellingly, both teams’ xG was almost dead even with 1.16 for Racing and 1.17 for the Spirit.
Offensively, the goal scorer unsurprisingly produced the most xG, but surprisingly it was Gemma Bonner who produced the second most. She came awfully close on headers from set pieces and even found the back of the net before the goal was disallowed due to being off-sides. Also, unsurprisingly, Savannah DeMelo created the most drastically more chances than anyone on either team due to the high number of corners and set pieces she took. She had six chances created while the next highest on either team was 2.
Defensively, Emily Fox had a good night with the most touches of any player on Racing and the highest passing accuracy of any starter with a whopping 91% accuracy. She also won possession 17 times which is more than any other player on the pitch.
For many Racing Louisville fans, it might feel like they’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day where they’re forced to watch the team play well again and again only to have them settle for a draw. Game after game Racing has been showing improvement, good chemistry on the field, and in almost every way looking superior to last season’s inaugural squad. And yet, the wins just aren’t coming.
However, some perspective fans need to keep is that the wins aren’t really coming hard and fast for anyone. As of Sunday morning, San Diego has the most wins with seven with Houston and Chicago following with six. Those numbers in the win column aren’t very far off from where top teams were last year, but what is majorly different is the loss and draw column.
Let’s take a look at the top four teams and compare their records between this year and last year (excluding San Diego which has no 2021 record to compare):
As I’m writing this, the Portland Thorns are in first place with a record of 6-1-7 and 25 points. Already, it should stand out that the Thorns have more ties than wins. This is even starker when you consider that their record after 14 games in 2021 was 9-3-2. That’s three fewer wins but five more draws.
Jumping over the San Diego Wave (currently in second place with a 7-3-4 record and 25 points and only behind Portland due to goal differential), let’s look at the current third-place Houston Dash. This year after 13 games they had a 5-6-2 record and now they have a 6-4-3. That’s actually not that much different than last year. The Dash is one of the few teams that are actually winning and losing, but they do have one more draw than last year.
Next is OL Reign, who is in fourth place with a 5-3-6 record. Last year they were 7-6-1, so there’s another big shift in the number of draws. And the same goes for the fifth-place Chicago Red Stars who had a 5-6-2 record in 2021 and a 5-3-5 record now.
Of course, nothing is starker than the Washington Spirit. Last year’s league champions had a 6-5-4 record at this time last year. They currently are languishing in 10th place with a 1-5-9 record.
So what does this mean? Primarily, it means it’s not just Racing. It’s happening across the entire league. It just looks extra stark for Racing when they fail to get wins mixed in with all these ties.
Said another way, it means Racing isn’t doing great, they’re not doing horribly, but they’re doing okay. As my friend Beirne Miles said in a post-game chat with the Lavendar Legion, “we aren’t killing it, but we aren’t being killed.” Last year, Racing won more games early on, but they also lost 5-0 to the North Carolina Courage and 3-0 to the Portland Thorns, and multiple 2-0 losses to different teams. They were shut out eight times. This year, Racing’s worse loss was 3-0 to the North Carolina Courage and they’ve only been shut out three times.
In retrospect, some of Racing’s early successes in 2021 can be chalked up to novelty and luck. Teams weren’t sure what to expect from the team and they got surprised. They also had some lucky games where they were majorly outshot but still managed to have luck go their way enough to earn a win. At this time last season, Racing already had four wins and they’d only go on to have five in the entire year, so they were clearly getting figured out by this point.
So why are teams earning so many ties? There probably isn’t one single reason, but there are a few likely ones. The double expansion draft and the allure of the California teams disrupted starting lineups far more than Racing did in the previous year which helped create even more parity. There have been coaching changes in every club in the past two years. Those coaching changes were due to a major upheaval in the league as countless stories of player abuse and mistreatment were revealed. In other words, a lot has happened in the past 16-18 months. And one byproduct of this is that teams throughout the league are earning more draws – Racing included.
Speaking of Racing, they had a 4-7-4 record at this time last year. Now they’re 2-6-7. They’re losing games and definitely dropping points they shouldn’t. There is no argument there at all. But, as discussed above, they’re not getting shut out as much and they’re not losing by large margins at all. Most games have been by a single-point difference. And that’s almost harder to stomach as a fan. You want to be able to say ‘We’re awesome!’ or ‘We’re terrible! Throw everything away and start again!’ But Racing’s somehow stuck somewhere in the middle. Instead, fans can only say ‘we’re okay’ and hope the team continues to get better.
Three games in eight days at home and we felt the love at each one of them. 💜 pic.twitter.com/mfPchmbUvs
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 7, 2022
A Need for Stability
There is, however, a growing contingent of people on social media now saying that coach Kim Björkegren should be fired and the team should start over again next season.
Personally, I think that sounds awful.
The main reason Racing hasn’t been doing that well this season is because the team switched coaches last year. They’re learning a new system under a new coach who has spent the whole season moving personnel to find a roster that fits his needs and particular wants. Whether all the roster movement is a good thing or not is up for debate, but the fact of the matter is, it’s happened. And the system being used is one that’s being dictated by the club itself. The entire club – meaning Racing and Lou City’s leadership – wants to be an aggressive, high-pressing team. So if you have a problem with that, it’s far bigger than just Kim.
Personally, I think there are a lot of things that could have been done better. And I have a lot of questions about how the team is going about rebuilding the roster and how inflexible they’re being tactically on a whole. The change in tactics on Friday was a nice change, as was the signing of Chinese national team member Wang Shuang. But neither answer all the lingering questions about trade decisions and tactics that have existed all season. Even so, this team needs at least one season without disruptions before they can truly be judged. One season to see if they can implement the system they’ve been working on. One season of some stability for the players on the team.
Is that essentially saying this season is a wash and everyone should start looking towards next season? Not necessarily. Racing should fight to win games and should keep showing improvement and Lester said the squad is “all in” on doing just that. But after everything the team has gone through this year, it’s not hard to see that it’ll take another season of settled play before they can truly find their footing. Give them time to learn to play together as a team before asking them to wipe the slate clean and start over again.
Maybe next year won’t be any better. Maybe Racing will be sitting in the same situation. If that happens, then this conversation absolutely needs to be revisited. If there’s a fraction of the turnover from this year, this conversation absolutely needs to be revisited. Everyone has different opinions about how much time is tolerable for team development and it can be hard to see improvements in the emotional wake of another disappointing draw. It’s definitely challenging seeing former players do very well in their new teams while Racing continues to struggle to earn wins.
But, in the meantime, there are positives to focus on. There are nine more games to play. There’s the Women’s Cup coming in a couple of weeks. Racing has a player who is fast becoming the top candidate for Rookie of the Year in Savannah DeMelo, Katie Lund is showing exactly why she’s the starting keeper this season, Jess McDonald and Nadia Nadim are on the squad along with exciting new acquisitions like Wang Shuang yet to join. There’s still so much to be excited about with Racing. Everyone wants the team to be great and there are a lot of signs pointing to the fact they can be, but right now the team is doing okay. And considering everything that’s happened with this team and this league, that’s okay – for now.