Fighting Against a Strong Current
Racing Louisville shut out the Kansas City Current in a decisive 3-0 win on Saturday afternoon. After showing clear signs of growth across their last three matches, it all came together for Racing in a statement of a match that shows just how competitive they can be. Not only is this their first win of the season, but it’s also their first Challenge Cup win ever and only their second away victory in team history.
After the match, Coach Kim Björkegren said, “We’re doing better every week. I want the fans in Louisville to be proud of this team, to see that we’re doing our best every single game. We’ll always do our best and we did it today.”
Midfielder Lauren Milliet, who earned her first professional goal in this match, agreed with her coach’s assessment. She said the team has been discussing how they’re building in the right direction and this win demonstrates that their hard work is paying off.
“I think it shows that we do have a lot of fight when we work together,” said Milliet. “And I think that that’s the most important part. At the end of the day, the results will come if we continue to work hard.”
Prior to Saturday’s loss to Racing, the Current had been undefeated in the Challenge Cup. They also had the most goals scored in the Central Division and many assumed they had the division’s top spot locked down. Captain Gemma Bonner said she hopes this win of this caliber will give the team more belief in themselves.
“I think you could see what it meant to the group today and the hard work that the whole squad put in,” said Bonner. “It’s been a long week and we’ve traveled to back-to-back away games and you’ve seen the strength and the depth that we’ve got in the squad, too, ’cause I think every player has played their part and we’ve not seen a dip in performance. We’ve just grown from game to game. So for us as a group, it’s been a huge, positive week and now we have to keep on building this momentum now.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 2, 2022
Once again, Racing came out of the gates hot, but unlike in Chicago, they got on the board early. In the 9′, Jessica McDonald made a run down the right side and sent in a dangerous low pass to Lauren Milliet. Defender Hailie Mace cut in front of Milliet, however, and deflected the ball into the back of the net for an own goal. The rest of the half was marked by lots of back-and-forth action. The Current put together a good number of shots, but most were off-target. A foul by Savannah DeMelo led to a dangerous free-kick at the top of the box, but Kansas City’s Lo’eau LaBonta sent it well over the crossbar.
In the second half, Racing came in a little shaky in the first 10 minutes or so, but they righted their ship quickly. In the 60′, Cece Kizer won the ball back and sent a ball through to Lauren Milliet. A mis-clear by a Current defender fell right to Milliet who sent it in for a second goal. Only five minutes later, Gemma Bonner scored a header off a corner delivered by Emina Ekic. This was Racing’s first goal off a corner ever and Bonner’s first goal in the NWSL. It was also the first time Racing had ever scored three goals in a Challenge Cup match. For the rest of the match, Racing was in full control and even came close to scoring a fourth. After five minutes of stoppage time, the match ended 3-0 for Racing.
By the Numbers
Compared to their last match against Kansas City, Racing did a good job of holding them to fewer shots. Although the Current still had a high number with 17 shots, only two were on target. Racing conversely had nine shots (one better than their last match against the Current) but four were on target. Racing continues to have the best shooting accuracy of any team in the Central Division by a significant degree. Their shooting accuracy stands at 61.5% with the Dash’s 52% as the next highest. Racing’s conversion rate is also the division’s highest at 23%. The next closest team is the Red Stars with 15%.
In fact, Racing has the highest shooting accuracy of any team in the league right now except OL Reign who barely nudge them out at 62.5%. Racing also has the highest conversion rate of any team in the league bar none.
Possession against the Current was almost dead even with Racing taking the barest majority at 51%. Passing accuracy between each team was almost dead even, too, at 70.4% for Racing and 70.7% for Kansas City.
Interestingly, this is the first game where Racing did better in the second half than the first. Kansas City had 12 of their 17 shots in the first half and none on target in the second half. Racing conversely had two shots on target in both halves and a nearly equal split in shots. Once again, Racing’s percentage of possession and passing accuracy did drop significantly in the second half, but the Current faced a nearly identical drop in all numbers except possession. This shows that, unlike in previous matches, Racing’s opponents didn’t surge in the second half while Racing dropped precipitously. Instead, the game stayed quite evenly matched.
The Straight and Narrow
Racing once again came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, this time with Jess McDonald up top as the lone striker. The defense has been an ongoing issue with Racing so adding a double defensive midfield pivot point has helped shore up the central defense. In the past, Racing would repeatedly lose possession in the midfield only to get burned on the transition while in a 4-3-3. Since implementing the double sixes in the last two matches, this seems to have lessened significantly. Racing may still lose the ball in the midfield, but opponents aren’t able to exploit gaps as well as they have previously. After the match, Lauren Milliet specifically called out having double sixes for having “played a really important role in the win” in terms of helping both in the defense and the build-up.
The thing about a 4-2-3-1 formation is that it’s very narrow. Racing took that to almost a more extreme degree on Saturday and played such a narrow game that I had a friend contact me and ask if a passing matrix image was accurate or not. They assumed there was a glitch because Racing played so tightly through the center. While these images are probably somewhat distorted because the outer backs switched sides often which averaged them out in the middle, it’s clear Racing moved very consistently through the center of the field all game.
Take a look at the images below to see how Racing lined up compared to where they actually played throughout the course of the match. First, the image directly below shows how Racing lined up in a typical 4-3-2-1 formation.
Next, we have two images showing where Racing’s players actually played during the match. In the top image, it appears that the field’s width was almost entirely unutilized. In the bottom image, the substitutes are added. It is only with the additions of Kirsten Davis (22), Erin Simon (3), Taylor Otto (19), and Addisyn Merrick (26) that any real outside positioning takes place.
None of this is to say that playing narrowly is a bad move. And it’s unlikely this will become Racing’s only formation or game plan in the long run. What really matters is that every player is on the same page and following the same game plan no matter what formation they execute. This was the biggest difference between this match and the previous match against the Red Stars where Racing also played a 4-2-3-1. Against Chicago, Racing players regularly lobbed balls up into empty space on the sides when no teammate was present. The end result was a lot of wasted possession and a good number of turnovers. Against the Current, Racing still had some issues with passing accuracy, but they were also following the same plan more. As a result, they seemed to gel more – which brings us to the next point.
“Whatever It Is, We Do It Together As a Team”
Racing had all their disparate bits of growth across the last three games come together into one complete match on Saturday. Against Houston, Racing played a breathtaking first half where the team flowed together and read each other beautifully. Against Chicago, they played a more consistent game across 90 minutes but weren’t all on the same page quite as much. Finally, in this match against the Current, Racing both played consistently and were mostly on the same page. Did their movement flow as well as they did in that first half against Houston? No, but everyone seemed very aware of the game plan and they executed it well. In short, this is a team that’s starting to gel.
Post-game, Gemma Bonner said the growing cohesiveness of the squad is all due to hard work on the training pitch.
“Kim [Björkegren] worked very hard in both defensive and attacking shape and working with the different units and making us more together as a team in in the decisions that we make. Whatever it is, we do it together as a team. And I think the defense starts from the front and obviously in attacking we build up from the back. So for us as a team, everyone being ready to put in the hard work on the training ground -you know, sometimes as players, it can probably get a bit repetitive, but I think it’s starting to show how we’re all gelling on the field.”
Another strong sign of the team gelling is their growing ability to come back together once they lose control of a match. Against Houston, they lost control in the second half and collapsed spectacularly. Against Chicago, they had shaky moments – particularly in the middle of the second half – but they managed to absorb pressure, collect themselves, and regain control towards the end. They did the same thing against the Current but even more quickly and effectively. Staying calm and accepting that games will have ups and downs is something the team has been working on.
“We need to accept that they [the opponent] sometimes have the momentum,” said Björkegren. “We can’t control 90 minutes every single game, so we just need to accept it.”
All of this growth in connection and consistency is even more impressive considering the amount of rotation Racing has faced these past three games. There have been major players like Cece Kizer, Freja Olofsson, Jessica McDonald, and Jaelin Howell taken out for rest and moved around. Even so, the quality of the games hasn’t taken a hit at all. Against the Current, they even managed to score three different types of goals that involved totally different players each time. And, of course, they converted their very first corner kick, too.
“It’s going to be a long season, so we need all our players,” said Björkegren. “This group is amazing and you can see that, again, we’re doing better and better.
The Pay Off
This result against the Current is extremely exciting for Racing and not just because they’ve gotten their first win. After all, even the worst teams will win a match or two eventually. What’s exciting is the fact that Racing’s growth has paid off quickly. After their collapse against Houston, they were able to reorganize, regroup, and earn four points in two away games in just nine days.
What’s better is that this wasn’t a fluke win either. Last season, some teams would beat themselves more than Racing would beat or draw them. Opponents would make mistakes and miss their chances or hit the woodwork. Their lack of finishing helped Racing more than Racing stopped their attack. This season, however, statistics clearly show that each week Racing has increasingly been taking control of games, playing more consistently, and actually earning their points through being an equal or better side.
The consistent message from Coach Kim Björkegren has been that he would start with the basics and build this team up block by block. After every preseason scrimmage, players would say they could see that they were getting better. The thing about growth, though, is that it can only go so far before solid, tangible results are required. Fortunately for Racing, Björkegren’s vision for Racing seems to be coming together fast. Players seem fully bought in, too. Last year, that loss to Houston might still be haunting them. Instead, this year’s Racing squad has put it behind them in the biggest way possible.
Of course, this isn’t to say that it’ll all be sunshine and roses for Racing from here on out. They have a long season ahead of them and will face some extremely tough challenges along the way. But, right now, they know that they can win. They know that they can, at least, play equally or better than their Central Division counterparts. I said several times this preseason that success for Racing in this Challenge Cup would be a win. Four games in, and they’ve already won one and, even better, only lost one. And that loss was a game that should have been theirs, too.
It’s fair to say that, as things stand now, this is a better team than last year. They still have a lot of growing to do, but that’s the most exciting part. Although they’re gelling already, this is a team that hasn’t fully come together yet so we haven’t seen their ceiling. If they keep building on this foundation and learning from their mistakes, they could be surprisingly formidable this year.
For now, though, Racing heads into the international break on a high note after an intense week on the road. This will give the players some time to rest before coming back stronger than ever.
“I think it’s necessary to have a little distance to the football for a couple of days,” said Coach Björkegren. “But then of course back to work again. Keep moving in the right direction.”