Disappointment In Daytona
After going up by two goals, Racing Louisville ultimately settled for a 2-2 draw against the Orlando Pride on Sunday night. Despite excellent goals by Emina Ekic and Savannah DeMelo and a potentially missed penalty call that could have put Racing ahead, they left the match with split points.
“We’re disappointed because we really wanted to fight and take the three points,” said head coach Kim Björkegren. “We had really good training again this week, and we’re disappointed with just one point.”
Consistency remains an issue with Racing. Once again, they started slowly and had to find their way into the game. Around the midpoint of the first half, they finally found their rhythm. In particular, Ekic had a couple of good chances before finishing one in the 34th minute. Savannah DeMelo sent a ball forward to defender Nealy Martin who was charging up the right side. Martin’s cross found Ekic to toe-tapped it between the legs of an Orlando defender to find the back of the net.
Racing stayed on top coming into the second half. In the 51st minute, DeMelo drew a foul just on the edge of the penalty box earning a free kick about 19 yards out. In a goal that was very reminiscent of her goal against San Diego, DeMelo fired a laser into the upper 90 past Orlando keeper Erin McLeod to put Racing up 2-0. Almost immediately after that goal, however, the momentum changed and Orlando got on the front foot. Racing wasn’t able to adjust and the Pride were able to score two by the time the match ended.
Towards the end of the match, there was a potentially game-changing missed penalty call after DeMelo went down in the box. Answering a question from WHAS’s Tyler Greever after the match, DeMelo said she does believe the call was missed.
“I’m not one to just fall every time I get touched. I definitely think it was a PK, but I know calls aren’t always going to come our way so that’s just part of the game.”
Players and coach agreed that the finer details are what needed to be worked on for Racing. They need to learn to close out matches and communicate better onfield. A lack of communication, said Ekic, can lead to players falling off the game plan which can have a domino effect.
“If one person was out of position, it kind of was like a trickle effect down the team, down the field,” she said. “So we just have to communicate what’s in front, what’s behind us to our teammates. Filling in our roles and doing our jobs.”
DeMelo agreed that communication is key, but emphasized that the team is very young and still learning as they go. They have the youngest average starting 11 of any squad in the NWSL so learning how to communicate and stay consistent at this level will take time. She believes they have good players, they just need to figure out how to put it all together.
“It’s gonna come,” she said. “I’m trying to stay positive and I think we have a great team.”
Free kick perfection from Savannah DeMelo 🤩
— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 4, 2022
By The Numbers
As mentioned before, the issue here for Racing was consistency. They had very poor control of the game for the first 20 minutes of the match. Even after dominating the remainder of the first half they still only managed 43% possession. In the second half, possession was split nearly 50/50 so Racing was clearly back in the game more despite giving up two goals.
In many ways, this was a very evenly matched game. Both teams had the same number of crosses (16), corners (4), and shots on target (8). Racing actually edged out the Pride in terms of xG with Racing earning 1.17 to their opponent’s 0.94. This demonstrates the continued trend of Racing doing well at creating chances but failing to finish them.
Individually, it’s no surprise that both goal scorers had some of the most impressive stats. DeMelo is unquestionably Racing’s best player of the season. She’s the only player in the NWSL this season to score directly off a free-kick situation – and she’s already done it twice in 10 games. Against the Pride, she led her teammates in a large number of stats, including touches (83), passes (46) passes in the final third (20), crosses (4), dribbles (5), duels (28), duels won (16), possession won (13), tackles (8), and tackles won (5). Just looking at this long list shows how effective she is on both sides of the ball. (Check out my recent Equalizer interview with DeMelo here.)
Emina Ekic also had a very strong start. Traditionally, she’d been more effective off the bench, but this match shows she can hold her own as a starter, too. She was responsible for over half of Racing’s xG (0.66) and generated the most of anyone on either team. She also had the most shots (4) and shots on target (3) of anyone on either team. For an interesting discussion about Ekic and her role as a substitute and a starter, check out last Thursday’s episode of ESPN Louisville’s Soccer City Radio found here.
It’s also worth noting Katie Lund had 6 saves on the night including a big one in the first few moments of the match. The two goals from Orlando were almost impossible to save so despite the scoreline, she put in a strong performance overall.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) July 5, 2022
Daytona Soccer Fest
In addition to being a regular-season match, this game was the final event for Daytona Soccer Fest. Taking place on a temporary soccer pitch built on top of the world-famous Daytona International Speedway, the event featured concerts by artists like Chance the Rapper, multiple friendlies, and family activities. Big tent-pole events like this are common in American sports but virtually nonexistent in women’s soccer. Many questioned whether something like this could be pulled off and now that it’s complete, it can tentatively be called a success.
While it didn’t sell a record number of tickets, over 7,500 people attended the Pride/Racing match. This is higher than any attendance either team has received in their home stadiums this season. It also aired nationally on CBS Sports Network and was streamed internationally in multiple countries beyond even the NWSL’s normal reach on Twitch. This means that no matter how you look at it more eyes were on this match than normal. Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine that some people saw an NWSL match for the first time as a result of this event and that’s incredibly important if the league is going to grow. And while the 2-2 draw might not have been exciting for Racing fans, it was definitely an interesting and competitive game for a first-time viewer.
There were, of course, some issues and the biggest one was the quality of the pitch. Much was made about this temporary pitch being constructed in only five days and costing over a million dollars, but the general consensus after the match was that it was not an ideal surface to play on. During a brief midgame interview, Emina Ekic described it as being “lumpy and squishy.” Björkegren said, “The pitch was difficult to handle. I think there was a lot of sand under so it was really soft so the ball never bounced.”
Considering both teams were playing on it for the first time, it’s clear no team had the advantage over the other by using this surface. And it did hold up pretty well considering it saw three matches in two days. Still, is a temporary pitch of this nature really a surface befitting a professional, regular-season match?
Even with pitch concerns, players said they were happy to take part in this event. DeMelo called it a great environment and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this so I just think it’s huge any time we can do [something like this] or publicize women’s sports. I think it’s just amazing.”
The organizers of the event have said they hope to put on this event again in the future and with nearly over 7,500 ticket sales, they very well may try again next year. If they do, hopefully, they can help figure out a better surface to play on.
The Young & The Restless
It’s clear looking on social media that some Racing fans are getting restless. Bigger players have left the team – some unhappily – and despite showing moments of brilliance, Racing is having trouble holding together a consistent 90 minutes.
As someone who has been very outspoken about my own concerns, I think it’s critically important that fans remember that this is a very young squad. As DeMelo said, Racing’s starting eleven is the youngest in the league. This means they have fewer vets on the pitch to keep things in order and it means there will probably be a longer learning curve.
Issues like communication and consistency that were brought up by DeMelo and Ekic tie into this to some extent. These players are still learning how to talk to each other on the pitch in a professional environment. Many players are just out of college, too. In college matches, top teams with a lead could take their foot off the gas and rest a bit and not get burned. Not so in the NWSL. Therefore, playing consistently through a much longer season than in college means there will be some stumbles along the way. It’ll be frustrating, but the team should be given some grace to figure things out.
Racing has the makings of an excellent team in the future with its young core. Emily Fox, Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell, Katie Lund, and Emina Ekic are a heck of a foundation to build a team around. Lauren Milliet and Freja Olofsson have proven themselves to be flexible journeywomen ready to go wherever they’re needed. Although we haven’t seen as much of them yet, Parker Goins, Kirsten Davis, Jordan Bloomer, and Taylor Malham all have the potential to grow into strong pieces of this team. This is a squad being built for the future and so it might take some time for it all to come together.
Out of Our Depth?
Of course, building a squad for the future means retaining your strongest pieces long enough to build a team with them. Many fans thought that Ebony Salmon, Cece Kizer, and Addisyn Merrick would be essential to the build-up of Racing only to find them all gone by mid-season and that’s alarming.
The next biggest test Racing will face is proving they can retain these young, core players who are currently starting. Olofsson already got re-signed, but retaining Milliet and Ekic whose contracts expire at the end of the year will be big. Even bigger will be re-signing Fox, Lund, and DeMelo whose contracts end after 2023. All these players are critical to the future success of Racing and if they’re unable to keep the majority of them with the team, that will raise some serious questions about the club.
In the meantime, though, Racing is facing a depth issue. While it’s a relief that the team recently signed two roster replacement players – Zaneta Wyne and Allison Whitfield – to get the team through July’s series of international tournaments, it’s worrying to see such little depth on Racing’s bench. Wyne, Whitfield, Goins, and Malham are all good players. So is Alex Chidiac who started on the bench against Orlando because she is still recovering from a facial injury. While all of these players are highly talented and Björkegren has said he wants a thinner squad, there’s little room for error if there are any injuries. There are also no seasoned NWSL veterans to come in and either close the game out or turn it around if it’s going poorly. The bench players may be incredibly good, but they’re almost entirely untested in the league. Is trial by fire really the best way to introduce these players to a new level of play? Also, as excellent as she is, isn’t it worrying that midfielder Lauren Milliet is seen as our best option as outer back with several defenders gone?
Time will tell if Racing can skate by on such a thin roster. And with games against the league-leading San Diego Wave and perpetual contenders the Portland Thorns coming up, they’ll certainly be tested.
Björkegren still says the goal of the team is to make the top six and earn a playoff berth. Dropping two points in a game like Sunday’s makes that seem like an increasingly tough prospect, but it’s not out of the team’s grasp yet.
Thanks to losses by the Washington Spirit, NJ/NY Gotham, and the North Carolina Courage, Racing was bumped up to 9th before Sunday’s match even began. After earning the draw, they bumped up again to 8th place. With their 10 points and 2-4-4 record, Racing stands only 4 points out of a playoff spot. However, they also sit only 3 points out of last place, so they’re in a very precarious position in terms of movement up or down the standings.
If Racing is going to truly have a chance at a playoff spot, they need to do better than earn draws against teams that sit lower on the table than they do. They may have snapped their losing streak, but they’re still winless in the last five games.
Racing will have a chance against the two teams they’ve already beat coming up soon. Next Friday they play Gotham and the week after that they travel to California to take on the San Diego Wave. If Louisville is going to stay in the race for the playoffs, three points from at least one of these games because after that they’re facing the Portland Thorns and OL Reign in what are sure to be some of their toughest games all season.
Still, for right now, Racing is within reach of a playoff berth. It’ll be a tough task, but if Racing can earn a couple of wins, they’ll be entering the second half of the season in good shape to make a late push for a spot.