Despite putting on an offensive blitz for much of the match, the same old recurring mistakes cost Racing Louisville three points in their 2-1 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC on Friday.
Starting out, it seemed like Racing would dominate the match. In the 12th minute, Emina Ekic fired a rocket of a shot off a free-kick from just above the penalty box forcing Gotham’s keeper Ashlyn Harris to make a diving save to keep Racing off the board. Several more chances followed. Gemma Bonner’s header was blocked, Savannah DeMelo’s free-kick went just wide, and Alex Chidiac’s shot was just off. Then, in the 24th minute, Gotham’s Paige Monaghan beat Racing’s defenders to get take keeper Katie Lund one-on-one and fired a shot in by the near post.
Racing came into the second half looking dangerous with Jaelin Howell firing off a shot from just outside the penalty area that required another diving save from Harris. Finally, in the 67th minute, DeMelo intercepted a bad pass in the midfield and charged forward past several Gotham defenders. Her low shot beat Harris and Racing had the equalizer. Less than 10 minutes later, however, Racing had their own bad pass out the back that was picked off and converted into the game-winner. Although Chidiac had a good chance in the 70th minute and was arguably fouled in the box but earned no penalty kick, Racing came out of the match empty-handed.
“It feels like the same old story,” said coach Kim Björkegren after the match. “We have too many mistakes that are costing us points.”
Racing’s defensive lapses, in particular, are costing Racing points. Bad passes in the back or in the midfield get picked off and defenders can’t catch up and keep opponents from going one-on-one with Lund. Runners into the box aren’t being properly marked which is how Taylor Smith was able to score Gotham’s second goal. It’s becoming too easy for opponents to score on Racing in the breakaway because they know they can just wait for an error to occur, pounce on it, and have a good chance at beating the backline in a foot race. Both of Gotham’s goals were scored against the run of play showing Racing still needs major work on defending against the counterattack.
Offensively, Racing is continuing to lob balls into the box in the hopes they reach someone without enough players making runs into the box. When Howell had her shot on goal early in the second half, no forwards continued their runs into the box to potentially intercept a rebound. As a result, a Gotham defender was able to scoop up the ball deflected by Harris and clear it far too easily. Once again, Racing is building up more than enough chances to earn the win, but they’re not finishing them. Let’s take a look at Racing’s stats and see what they have to say about the team.
By the Numbers
For the second straight game, Racing produced more xG than their opponent. In this case, they more than doubled what Gotham created with Racing earning 1.98 and Gotham earning 0.91. Racing also had a whopping 24 shots but only 8 were on target. It is worth pointing out that Harris had a pretty spectacular game in goal. She saved 7 of 8 shots on target with 5 diving saves and 2 high claims. On other days, Ekic would have converted her free kick or Howell’s shot would have rolled in.
Still, to have 24 shots but only 8 on target isn’t the best stat. Another lopsided stat that stands out is that Racing had an amazing 41 crosses compared to Gotham’s 7. This is in part because Gotham was relying more heavily on the counter and breakaway to score. But for Racing to have 41 crosses and only 8 shots on target is not the best stat. Even with 24 shots.
In Racing’s first game of the season, they lost 2-1 to the Chicago Red Stars in a very similar fashion. They broke the league record with 47 crosses compared to the Red Stars’ 8. Back then, it seemed like these crosses were a sign of a team about to break out offensively. Ten games later, it doesn’t feel like Racing has progressed that much in this regard and there are a few reasons this might be happening.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) July 9, 2022
As has been discussed many times by many people, Racing is dealing with a lot of turnovers. Players are leaving, new players are being signed, and the roster is ever-changing. A thousand reasons can be given for why this is happening, but no matter how valid the reasons may be, roster flux impacts the team and often not in a totally positive way.
“We have players coming in and out,” said Alex Chidiac after Friday’s loss. “Obviously that’s not an excuse, but we really need to bring the group together really quickly to be able to get results week in and week out.”
This isn’t a fantasy football team. Players can’t just be dropped and new ones slotted in with no impact. Moving players around into different positions also creates some flux and uncertainty. On the pitch, players need to know each other’s movements and tendencies to play as a unit. How are they going to build lasting rapport if the team keeps getting shuffled around? Zaneta Wyne started for the first time against Gotham as outer back and did a fine job. Even so, she’s not who the other defenders are used to playing with. And with Lauren Milliet being played out-of-position as the other outer back, that’s a lot of changing dynamics for defenders to deal with all at once and that impacts performance. Even if the majority of the starting eleven is intact, the players who are coming and going are still who the starters work with on a daily basis in practice and live with outside of the pitch. If the roster is in a constant state of flux, that has ripple effects across the entire team.
Another point that’s been discussed many times before is how Racing is beholden to playing a high pressing, aggressive system. Clearly, some of this shifting around is to find players that fit into this system. This is likely to go one of two ways. The best-case scenario is that new players like Thembi Kgatlana will come in and fit like missing puzzle pieces and Racing will start to come together. The worst-case scenario, however, is that Racing will keep searching for players and shuffle them around and never fully achieve the system they’re determined to implement because they’re chasing an idea of what success looks like and not what success is with who they have.
There’s an excellent documentary called In Search of Greatness that talks about what makes the greatest athletes as successful as they are. One of the biggest points made in the documentary is that modern sports rely too heavily on data to guide them. Everyone tries to emulate someone else who has had success instead of finding out who they are individually and in the process they sell themselves short. They don’t achieve greatness. Data is helpful, but it can’t be the end all be all. If you base all of your judgment on data, you’re really not using any judgment at all.
Data tells us the high press has been used to great effect by the most successful teams in the world. But are they successful because of their system or was the system successful because of who they had on their roster? If a team can consistently dominate its opponents, the high press works well. Racing clearly isn’t dominating its opponents. They have flashes where they seem to be close, but they aren’t pulling it off. And yet they insist on playing the same style in the same formation with some different players swapped in and out on occasion. Opponents know exactly what Racing will do and so they can beat Racing 2-1 with only a couple of chances even though Racing had three times as many. Catch Racing in transition and you can almost certainly get a goal out of it if you can break away or get runners forward enough for a shot.
There’s nothing wrong with the high press in theory. In fact, it might be something Racing excels at sooner than later when they get their team together. But right now, they’re insisting on doing the same thing repeatedly and still seem surprised when the same problems keep happening and the same issues appear. Kim Björkegren said it seems like Racing is stuck in the same old story and maybe that’s because they’re stuck in the same old system with nothing changing but the players in the lineup.
Another point that always needs to be remembered is that Racing is exceptionally young. Racing is young in two ways: It has young players and it’s also a young team itself.
The young players mean that there’s less experience to guide the team or show them how to push past falling behind. Kirsten Davis got the start this game and had some good looks on goal. Still, there were times she looked a bit overwhelmed and didn’t make the best decisions as a result. This is completely normal for a rookie. The only way for a rookie to lose their greenness is to get more minutes. The problem with Racing is that there are too few veterans around to pick up the slack when the rookies are working through the learning curve of becoming a pro. This should improve as the players become more experienced, but that’ll take time and Racing might not have enough time left in this season, at least, to get their young players acclimated.
The fact Racing is a young team itself in only its second year means that standards aren’t fully set yet. Players are still learning how to communicate with each other. They’re still learning how to be players on this team. They’re still figuring out their identity as a club. In this way, it helps to have a strong system and philosophy guiding the club. It gives players a framework to build on. Therefore, it’s not having a system that’s the problem, it’s being too rigid with the system that’s the issue.
Once again, the only thing that will change this is time. Maybe it’ll improve next week, maybe it’ll improve next month, or maybe it won’t until next year. Either way, it’ll take time for these standards to be set and, with a new coach and many new staff members this year and many new players coming in, it’s almost like the team is starting over again. With each restart, the time until the team can settle will get longer and longer. Players still say they’re hopeful about what they can do this season, but with so much in flux, it’s becoming less realistic to believe Racing can make it into a top-six playoff position.
So Close Yet So Far Away
The most frustrating thing about watching Racing play at the moment is that they’re not playing badly overall. They’re making bad mistakes, but on the whole, they’re playing some good soccer. They are a talented group, they just can’t get to the next level. If they were just doing poorly and getting steamrolled, it wouldn’t be pretty but it’d be easier to shrug it off and say that it was just a bad game. But in the case of this match against Gotham and several losses and draws this season, including against Orlando and Angel City, Racing has actually played quite well.
And yet Racing has dropped back down to 10th place and may even drop to last place by the end of the weekend. If Washington draws and the Courage win, Racing will be in 12th place. (Update: Thanks to a Cece Kizer goal for Kansas City to beat Washington, Racing will only likely fall to 11th place.)Gotham hadn’t scored in six weeks prior to this match against Racing. They were lower in the standings, as was Orlando last week. So why are teams with worse overall performances beating Racing? Why is Racing consistently creating a high xG in games they end up losing?
There’s no question this is a more talented team than the one Racing fielded last year. Players like DeMelo and Howell have transformed the midfield. Even if Howell had a slower start, she’s gotten better each match and arguably had her best game ever on Friday night.
So why is Racing doing worse than last year? For now, players say they’re close and happy and the vibe of the team remains positive, but how long will that last if things don’t turn around? There’s no easy answer to either of these questions and Racing’s leadership is going to have to take a hard look at themselves instead of just at the players if they’re going to find an answer.
Even despite these problems, Racing remains an exciting team to watch. Players like DeMelo are dynamite and it’s exciting to see hometown product Ekic develop each match. Soon Nadia Nadim and Emily Fox will be back and Thembi Kgatlana will be playing her first minutes in lavender, so there is a lot to look forward to. If Racing can start showing signs of progress it’ll go a long way in soothing concerns even if they ultimately miss out on playoffs. It’s clear that there’s no easy path for this team, but there’s still half of a season left to play. And if a year-and-a-half in the NWSL has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen.