Racing Louisville’s Challenge Cup Ends with a Loss to the Houston Dash

Racing Louisville fell 1-2 to the Houston Dash on Sunday night. This was the final Challenge Cup match for both teams who ended the tournament with six points apiece. Louisville ends in third place in the Central Division while Houston ends in fourth.

In a match where Racing rookies Jaelin Howell, Jordyn Bloomer, and Parker Goins all hit major professional milestones, the lingering memory will probably be the questionable calls that may have impacted the game’s outcome. Houston’s second goal came off a corner where keeper Bloomer was pushed backward and ultimately knocked over, but no foul was called. Later, Lauren Milliet was called off-sides after finding the back of the net. Replays brought this call into question almost immediately.

However, the fact of the matter is that the NWSL does not use VAR. There’s little Racing can do beyond moving on and looking ahead to the next game.

After the match, Coach Kim Björkegren was diplomatic. Although he admitted the foul against Bloomer would be called “nine out of 10 times”, he insisted: “There’s no reason to complain over referees. Sometimes their decision is in favor of you, sometimes not.”

Midfielder Lauren Milliet agreed and said, “I think it was definitely a difficult game, for sure. Some calls didn’t go our way, but that is the game.”

Ultimately, this was a Challenge Cup match that wouldn’t have impacted Racing much either way. Even though Houston tied them in points, their goal differential kept them from surpassing Racing in the standings. A win could have pushed Racing up into second place in their division over the Red Stars, but a chance to make it into the tournament playoffs was already out of reach.

Looking at the Challenge Cup holistically, Racing did an admirable job competing in their division. They lost to the Dash twice, but those were their only losses. They beat or tied both of the top two teams in the Central Division and were only shut out once. Overall, Racing ended the tournament in seventh place out of 12. This is better than their eighth place out of 10 in 2021.

“We showed a lot in the Challenge Cup, but we’re not satisfied,” said rookie midfielder Jaelin Howell, who scored her first professional goal this match. “Not moving on to the semifinal and not getting this win at the end, we’re not satisfied. We’re going to come together as a team and really show what we’re capable of. We’ve seen spurts of it. Now it’s just the consistency part.”

Match Recap

Racing struggled to put together a coherent attack through the start of the first half. In the first 20 minutes, Houston got off several shots on goal while Louisville had none. In the 24′, Houston’s Nichelle Prince stripped the ball from the feet of Julia Lester and scored to put the Dash on the board first. About five minutes later, a bobble by the Dash’s keeper rebounded to Racing’s Jaelin Howell who volleyed it in to bring the game level. Approximately five minutes after this, the Dash scored off a corner kick in the play where Bloomer was arguably fouled.

This score would ultimately stand through the entire second half. Substitutions for Racing in the 56′ replaced the entire starting front line and brought new energy to the pitch. In the 71′, Cece Kizer sent in the through ball for Lauren Milliet who tapped it into the back of the net. Milliet was ultimately called off-sides and the goal was called back.

By The Numbers

Neither team had a particularly effective night offensively. Racing had 11 total shots with only 3 on goal. Meanwhile, the Dash had 14 shots with 5 on goal. So although Houston had the slight edge, both teams were more or less even in this regard. This match did mark some of Racing’s worst offensive showing in 2022 with only 27% shooting accuracy. Shot production was virtually nonexistent in the first half with only 3 shots and 1 on target (Howell’s goal). While more shots were taken in the second half, only two were on target.

Although their shooting accuracy dropped in the first half, many other metrics improved for Racing. They had more touches in the opposition box, more big chances, and improved passing accuracy in the opposition half and final third.

Racing had the upper hand on passing accuracy with 77% accuracy to Houston’s 70%. They also held the majority of possession with 56%.

Not Good Enough…

Ultimately, this was an often sloppy match on both sides. Racing didn’t seem to fully get into the match until the second half and had too many turnovers. Their pressing wasn’t effective and players weren’t aggressively getting numbers into the box as much as they needed.

“I think the first half was not good enough,” said Coach Björkegren. He did say that he saw improvement as the game went on, particularly after the substitutions helped pick up the pace. Parker Goins and Kirsten Davis added a strong kick to the offensive, as did Cece Kizer who assisted Milliet’s almost-goal. Racing came close to an equalizer on several occasions late in the game, they just needed a better final touch and more consistency.

It’s worth noting the that starting lineup featured only one player over 25 years old. Racing fielded an extremely young team and that lack of experience was evident throughout the first half. But getting minutes during matches is the only way for young players and especially rookies to grow, as Coach Björkegren said after the match.

“I think it was a good chance for some of the younger players to get some experience to be sure.” He went on to say that it’s difficult to go from college into as strong a league as the NWSL and praised rookie keeper Bloomer for holding her own during much of the match. He also praised Parker Goins who earned her first professional minutes as a substitute in the second half. Björkegren praised Goins for her pace and said she was particularly effective inside the box. “I think she’s gonna have a good future,” he said of Goins.

…But Progress Continues Overall

Despite the clear frustration from players and coach after the match, everyone was adamant about the fact that they feel Racing is on the up and up.

“I’m extremely happy with the group overall,” said Björkegren about the progress the team has made since the start of preseason. “When it’s five minutes after a game, of course, you can be disappointed and the energy is not the best. But overall, I’m super happy with the group. They work hard, and I think our performances in games three, four, and five have been really good. We made some rotation today, and maybe that’s affected why our performance was not in the direction of the other ones, but that’s normal.”

Lauren Milliet also agreed that Racing has come a long way. Compared to last year, she said the team has “better energy” and is much more “hopeful” than they were previously. Although they still have a long ways to go, she said their chemistry and how they gel on and off the pitch is coming along quickly.

“I do feel like this is a different team than there was last year,” she said. “I think we work really well together and we all are trying to fight for each other, it’s just making sure it’s through the full 90. I do think this team is going to be something special, for sure.”

In particular, Racing’s midfield is coming together to be more consistent. The top two draft picks in 2022, Jaelin Howell (second overall) and Savannah DeMelo (fourth overall) have looked progressively sharper in every match. Milliet named DeMelo specifically as a younger player who has impressed her. Howell’s goal – which was remarkably similar to her first international goal scored just over two weeks ago –  was the direct result of smart positioning and follow-through. Both players have a very high ceiling and if they continue to develop

On To the Regular Season

Now that the Challenge Cup tournament has ended for both Louisville and Houston, both teams look to the regular season which begins next week. Racing will meet their familiar foe the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday, May 30 in Illinois for their season opener. They are then slated to travel to Seattle to play OL Reign on May 8. However, if the top-seeded Reign makes the Challenge Cup final on May 7, this game will very likely be postponed.

Updated: Just as this article was posted, the NWSL released what I guess can be considered an update. It reads: “Week 2 regular season games involving teams that advance to the final will be rescheduled to a future date.??” Yes, those two question marks were included in the press release.


Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.