A Full Performance
Well, that certainly feels better.
Racing Louisville beat the Orlando Pride 2-0 Friday night. This was Racing’s first win since late May and only their third win all season.
Bucking recent trends, Racing was the team that scored in under 10 minutes when Nadia Nadim tapped in a perfectly timed rolling cross from Jess McDonald for the first goal in the 9th minute. Another trend was bucked when Racing came in at the second half on the front foot and Savannah DeMelo sent in a perfect shot from outside the box only five minutes into the second half. Wang Shuang provided the assist.
All in all, this was a complete game from Racing. From offense to defense, they weren’t perfect, but they finished their chances, they made their blocks, and, most critically, they played as a cohesive unit. Both goals had strong build-ups, players audibly communicated with each, and everyone was much more disciplined and, therefore, effective in their positioning. And, as a result, they looked much more like the Racing fans had gotten used to seeing at the beginning of the season. Chemistry has been visibly absent in the past two games and it was a relief to see it back in full force against Orlando.
“It’s been a couple rough games,” admitted Player of the Match DeMelo, “but we want to end this season on a good note. Playing at home is awesome; the crowd was great. We all just played as a team. We played together. We finally played from the first minute to the 90th minute, so we got a full performance.”
Coach Kim Björkegren agreed the team put in a complete performance and said everyone was on the same page in realizing that the season wasn’t over yet and that they all needed to “take another step” together to get to the next level and earn a win.
“I think all of us felt the same thing. There was only one way to go and that was attack and go forward and press.”
Björkegren said the team had a goal to score in each half and he was proud they were able to accomplish it. This was a change in focus because, previously, they’d focused on talking about not letting the opponent score goals on them. This time, they focused on taking the initiative to score themselves and that flip in approach seems to have sparked a needed change in the team, based on the results.
By the Numbers
Orlando may have gotten more shots and shots on target than Racing (ORL: 14 shots/7 on goal; LOU: 11 shots/5 on goal), but Racing had substantially higher expected goals (xG for LOU: 1.53; ORL: 0.54) showing that Racing produced higher quality chances. And, considering Nadim’s goal was from the goal line, it’s not surprising that it generated the most xG by a lot. Katie Lund made a solid 7 saves on the night, but only a couple were any real challenge for her. This was also Lund’s fifth shutout which gives her the club record for most shutouts in a season.
Emily Fox had an excellent return to form after missing a match due to a concussion she picked up during international play. She had the most touches (69), passes (47), and the highest passing accuracy (85%) of anyone on the team. Fox and Wang Shuang had the highest number of successful dribbles with three apiece. Fox also led the team in possession won (11).
Jaelin Howell also had an excellent night. She had the highest number of duels won (11) and aerial duels won (5) on either team.
Offensively, Jess McDonald, Emina Ekic, Savannah DeMelo, and Wang Shuang all created two chances apiece. Nadim’s goal was her 6th in 9 games which ties her with Racing’s all-time goal scorers Cece Kizer and Ebony Salmon. That’s not bad considering she missed nearly all games until June and was gone most of July for the UEFA Euros. DeMelo’s goal was her 4th overall. Interestingly, every goal DeMelo has scored has been from outside the box. This match was the first time in 8 games Racing scored more than one goal in a match.
And, finally, this was Jess McDonald’s 175th regular season appearance. She is only the fourth player in NWSL history to reach this incredible milestone.
The single best thing Racing did all night on Friday was staying disciplined in their positioning. They kept their shape – as you can clearly see in every passing matrix visualization or average positioning chart, as seen below – and that kept Racing from working harder than they needed to defensively. It allowed them to play one of their most complete games to date.
— Arielle Dror (@arielle_dror) September 18, 2022
When players get pulled out of position, they leave gaps that are exploitable and they also tend to push the players around them out of position, too, which can have a cascading negative effect. Getting pulled out of position isn’t necessarily a sign of a player not being good enough or playing poorly. Instead, it’s often a symptom of caring so much that you try and fix everything yourself instead of leaving it up to your teammates. It’s essentially being overly helpful. Jaelin Howell has probably been the most guilty of this for Racing. At Florida State University, she could roam all over the midfield because opponents would meet them in a low block to ward off their inordinately dominant offense. So against Racing, she’s had to learn not to roam so far forward and leave so much room in front of the center backs. In this match, she did that perfectly.
Two other players that were especially strong in their positioning were center backs Gemma Bonner and Satara Murray. After the match, Coach Björkegren praised them both for staying farther apart and offering better cover for fullbacks Emily Fox and Lauren Milliet. He had special praise for Murray and said, “You can see Satara’s position was so much better today. She stopped so many attacks.”
The combination of a better spaced Murray and Bonner with a more disciplined Howell and Savannah DeMelo above them as the double midfield pivot allowed Racing to stop many of Orlando’s attacks which were focused down the center of the pitch. And the ones that did break through were mostly ineffective or only generated half chances that were stoppable by Lund. Considering one of Racing’s biggest issues all season has been getting scored on the breakaway down the center of the field, this is an excellent development for the team moving forward.
Another excellent development was seeing Wang Shuang continue to integrate into the team. After a stellar game against AC Milan during the Women’s Cup, Wang was rendered mostly ineffective against Chicago and North Carolina. That’s not an insult because, in reality, practically every player was rendered ineffective by the team’s lack of chemistry and cohesion.
Against Orlando, however, Wang looked like the smart, dynamic player Racing had been looking for. She’s particularly skilled at bringing the ball down and corralling it successfully away from opponents even when swarmed by them. Her footwork is also excellent and her give-and-go with DeMelo is what led to DeMelo’s stellar goal.
It was also great to see Emina Ekic get another start. She created a couple of good chances and, in true Ekic style, used her excellent foot skills to weave her way past multiple defenders to get a shot off. She had one excellent chance in the first half, but couldn’t get enough on it with her weaker right foot. Still, as she continues to wrack up minutes, she’ll surely continue to improve. Just look at her defending. In the past, defending was probably Ekic’s weakest area. Now, she’s getting all the way back and even making key clearances at times. Hopefully, fans will continue to see her in these final games.
Change My Mind
Last week, I was particularly outspoken about the direction of the club. I argued that keeping Björkegren possibly wasn’t in the club’s best interest anymore and that the front office needed some major overhauls to add some dedicated NWSL experience to managing Racing.
Has a strong win – and shut out, no less – changed my opinion at all? Frankly, no. Just like I said the loss to Chicago wouldn’t have been catastrophic on its own (especially since they beat Kansas City by the same scoreline) the fact it was partnered with an arguably even worse performance at North Carolina is what made it disastrous. On the flip side, this win was awesome! But it doesn’t suddenly fix everything. In order to truly show that these two matches were a brief nadir instead of a full collapse, Racing will have to come out and have successful matches against Portland and Angel City this week.
Notice that I say successful matches and not winning matches. Portland and Los Angeles are harder teams to beat than Orlando. Ideally, Racing would get points against one or both of these teams, but if that doesn’t happen, there are still plenty of ways to demonstrate success. First and foremost, Racing will have to show the same discipline on the pitch. The defense is still Racing’s most glaring issue, but if they can at least be smart in their positioning and movement, they have a great chance of having a better result. Secondly, they need to come out with this same energy and drive. Against Orlando, Racing was having fun. Even before they scored, they looked determined and focused. A couple of early mistakes very nearly cost them, but they didn’t let it rattle them. If they can stay motivated and energized even if things turn against them, that will be a huge sign that they’re in a good place as a collective. And, thirdly, they simply need to be competitive. It needs to be an acceptably close scoreline.
If Racing has a successful road trip then, yes, I’ll go back to arguing that it’s in the club’s best interest to have stability in the head coach position. The most alarming aspect of the previous two matches was how unmotivated the team was. They seemed ready to lose. A coach needs to motivate his team and Björkegren seemed increasingly unable to do that. The fact that Racing’s players came out looking so positive against Orlando is a good sign that that might not be the case. With some roster stability and some visible efforts to reclaim and reestablish the team’s identity, there very well may be no need for a change there.
However, it’s long overdue that Racing hires a full-time assistant coach. Mario Sanchez has been doing a remarkable job, but he’s the academy director and should be left to do that. Racing needs an NWSL-experienced assistant who can help motivate and develop these young talents into the best players they can be. Many teams have multiple assistant coaches and there’s no reason Racing can’t hire at least two to help Björkegren out. Not only would this improve communication, but it would improve development. Racing is a top-tier team. If they want to be contenders, the front office needs to do what it takes to get top-tier talent running this team even if that means paying for a larger, more costly staff.
This brings me to my biggest point from last week. No matter what happens this week, no matter if Racing beats Portland and Angel City 5-0, Racing still needs more front office staff dedicated specifically to them. They need NWSL-experienced management guiding roster building and player management at a minimum. They, frankly, should also have their own marketing staff and sponsorship coordinator, but that’s another story. Racing has the talent, the support infrastructure, and the burgeoning fanbase to be a top team. There is no doubt they need people familiar with the league and American women’s soccer culture to help guide them to this next step and the steps beyond.
Speaking of the fanbase, huge kudos to all of Racing’s fans who showed up on Friday. I was personally expecting a record low attendance. Not only was Friday the opening game for University of Lousiville football, but it was also the second night of one of the biggest concert festivals in the state, and it was Pride. All of these events detract heavily from Racing’s pool of supporters and after two big losses, it was reasonable to expect many would choose these other events instead. But they didn’t. Racing had an attendance of nearly 5,400 fans which is close to their average 2022 attendance.
Racing has a very loyal following. If they can right some of these mistakes and stay stable enough to establish an identity, they can really become something special. The recently announced re-signings of Lauren Milliet and Savannah DeMelo show that the players believe in this team, too. Now the front office needs to step up and do what it takes to set them up for success.