Sweet Victory: Racing Louisville earns huge 2-0 win against Gotham

So Much Confidence

Racing Louisville continued their excellent run of form on Sunday afternoon when they shut out NJ/NY Gotham 2-0 at home. This is Racing’s sixth win in nine matches across all competitions and their third consecutive clean sheet. As a result of this win, Racing has kept the playoffs within striking distance with a sixth-place spot only three points away.

“It’s huge, and it keeps us up with our goal of going to the playoffs,” said Savannah DeMelo. “I think it puts us in a really good spot to keep growing and keep going. It’s motivational for us.”

DeMelo opened scoring in the 23rd minute when she capitalized off a loose ball and confusion in the box to put Racing ahead. This was DeMelo’s fifth goal of the regular season and her ninth career goal which ties her with Nadia Nadim’s record for the most in team history. Only seconds into the second half, Thembi Kgatlana combined with Kirsten Davis and scored the second and final goal of the night. This was Kgatlana’s first goal in Racing colors and her first since returning from a ruptured Achilles last July.

Head coach Kim Björkegren had nothing but praise for the South African striker and her performance on Sunday, saying, “She had a great game. I think she was the best player on the pitch, to be honest, so, of course, it helps her. She creates so many chances so to finally get a goal is of course important.”

For her part, Kgatlana said that this win and the fact new players are starting to score is a sign of just how far the team has come since the beginning of the season. “We got so many draws at the start of the season but it was because we were still trying to understand each other. We don’t depend on one person to score, it’s always different people…The different players that we have, there’s just so much confidence that whoever’s on the pitch is going to give 100%, whether you play five  minutes or you play 90 minutes.”

All in all, this was another very complete, very consistent match from Racing Louisville. What’s especially positive is the fact that this was a match against a top-six team. It’s one thing to get a solid victory over a struggling side or one that’s heavily rotated for the Challenge Cup, it’s another to get it off a playoff contender. For the last month or so, the discussion around Louisville has been, can they beat a team that isn’t Chicago or Kansas City? Between Wednesday’s Challenge Cup match against Houston and this match against Gotham, the answer seems like a firm yes.

“We played with a lot of energy – overall the first half was one of the better of the season,” said Björkegren. “The second half was more about defending. In the middle of that second half, we were a little panicked but still well-organized in the defense. Maybe we can keep the ball in the team a little more – that’s my only thing – but we keep working hard, we have a good bench and we solved the problem.”

As a result of this win, Racing is now in 8th place and will have a full week off before heading to North Carolina next Saturday.

By the Numbers

Despite the fact that Racing had significantly fewer shots (13 to Gotham’s 20) and shots on goal (three to Gotham’s 7), their chances were much more dangerous than Gotham’s as evidenced by Racing’s 1.66 xG compared to Gotham’s 1.06. Racing also created three big chances compared to Gotham’s one. Ultimately, Gotham was shooting directly at keeper Katie Lund for most of their shots which rendered their attack fairly toothless.

Although Racing maintained nearly 50% possession in the first half, this changed dramatically in the second half when they only held 31%. Gotham was able to work their way back into the game significantly around the 60th minute when major substitutions like Kristie Mewis and Kelley O’Hara came into the match. Their fresh legs did give Racing something of a run for their money, but Racing still did an excellent job of keeping Gotham from making much forward progress. So even though Gotham had a ton of possession in the second half, Racing controlled them well off the ball with pressure and they weren’t able to make anything of it.

Racing did have some of their lowest passing accuracy this season with only 73%. Gotham is also a high-pressing team, so both teams caused a lot of disruption by applying pressure. Gotham fared better with 79% accuracy, but not massively so. And, again, with them having the majority of possession, much of this passing was moving the ball back and forth trying to break through Racing’s lines.

In the attack, it’s not surprising that goal scorers DeMelo and Kgatlana were the most effective with four shots apiece with Kgatlana getting two on frame and DeMelo getting one. Only Lynn Williams on Gotham did better with seven shots and three on target. DeMelo and Kirsten Davis created the most chances with three.

Interestingly, Carson Pickett usually dominates in final third entries for Racing. While she did lead the team with six it was Abby Erceg who somewhat surprisingly came in second with five. Wang Shuang, Lauren Milliet, and DeMelo all had four apiece showing that Racing attacked from more angles than they have typically this season.

In what has been a constant trend this season, Jaelin Howell and Lauren Milliet continue to be excellent in defense. Howell won possession eight times, more than any player on either team. Howell also won 10 of her match-high 16 duels. Milliet also won 10 duels out of 11. Milliet also won three out of four tackles and Howell four out of six. Milliet also tied DeMelo with two interceptions.

Katie Lund was called upon to make seven saves this match.

Thembi Kgatlana and Kirsten Davis embrace after Kgatlana’s goal / Image courtesy David Mucker

Key Takeaways

It’s All About the Defense

If there’s been one constant thread that’s gone through this entire season, it’s that Racing’s defense is top-notch. In their past five matches across all competition, Racing has earned four clean sheets. They’ve only given up a single goal while scoring eight. Goal scorers may get most of the attention, but they can only move forward freely when they know they have strong support behind them. Take it from Savannah DeMelo:

“I just think from Lo [Milliet] to Katie [Lund] to Elli [Pikkujämsä] who came in today, Abby [Erceg], Carson [Pickett], Julia [Lester] –I think they all do such a great job. Jaelin Howell and Ary [Borges]–huge props to the defense. It allows the attack to do what we like to do with a bunch of freedom.”

In particular, DeMelo had high praise for Milliet, saying, “I think Lo Milliet is just the smartest soccer player I’ve ever met. She’s someone that’s helped me throughout my rookie year into this year and I don’t think she gets enough recognition. I think everyone’s starting to know Lo Milliet is a badass.”

Milliet’s transformation into a rock-solid right-back is a clear bright spot in the brightest season Racing has ever had. She puts everything she has physically into matches and gets thrown to the group more than a few times each game. But she’s also technically savvy — and speedy — enough to run top attackers like Kerolin and Trinity Rodman off the ball. At the start of the season, the right side was clearly weaker than the left. That imbalance has increasingly disappeared now that the halfway point in the season has been crossed.

And with the somewhat unexpected call-up of their best player to the World Cup, Racing is going to need to lean hard on their defense to keep their momentum going.

World Class

On Friday, the Athletic reported that Savannah DeMelo had made the World Cup roster for the United States. Although this isn’t yet officially announced, it’s safe to say Racing fans can expect to see DeMelo on that plane to the U.S. camp in California on June 26th. Prior to this announcement, the thought of holding onto DeMelo during the World Cup break seemed like almost a cheat code for Racing — just look at how they’ve dominated rotated squads during the Challenge Cup — but now thoughts are heading towards how Racing will manage without their midfield superstar.

And, of course, it’s not only DeMelo heading to the World Cup. Racing will also lose Kgatlana, Wang, Borges, and Kanu. Alex Chidiac has already headed to Australia for camp, as well. However, Racing has long planned for these absences. DeMelo was the curveball everyone knew might be coming but didn’t totally know if it would.

So where does this leave Racing during the World Cup break?

Racing is obviously weakened by losing all these players, but every team in the league is weakened as a result of the tournament. Hence, the fact that the Challenge Cup takes up the majority of the time when players are gone. Racing will have one more regular season game with all players except Chidiac available but will lose DeMelo and Borges on June 26th, ahead of a regular season game against OL Reign in Seattle. The good news is that Racing will still have at least two of Wang, Kanu, and Kgatlana at this point while Seattle will be missing Jordyn Huitema, Emily Sonnett, Alana Cook, Rose Lavelle, and potentially more. They’ll play a final game against Kansas City with no World Cup players before they play three Challenge Cup games and then finally a game against Angel City that may or may not have players returned from the tournament depending on how well their teams perform.

These should all be manageable games for Racing even with key personnel missing. They’ll certainly be harder without these major players, but Racing’s stalwart defense from Howell in midfield back through Katie Lund in goal is staying fully intact. With Racing’s strong defensive performance, that will likely be the difference-maker for Louisville.

Savannah DeMelo embraces Carson Pickett after DeMelo’s goal / Image courtesy NWSL LCC – Jordan Prather

The other thing that will be a difference-maker for Racing is the fact that this is a team that believes it can win now. In a stark turnaround from last year when Racing gave up a goal in the first 10 minutes more often than not, this is a team that comes out of the front foot and often scores first as well. The win against Gotham was Racing’s third win of the season. It took Racing until September 16 to get a third win in 2022. All signs point to a team that is confident in their abilities and can perform when the going gets tough. Will they win every match? Of course not. But they’re better situated to win games than they ever have been in the team’s history.

A lot of credit for Racing’s mentality change can be attributed to the fact they played the Challenge Cup matches are regular matches. Early in the season, there was a lot of talk about how Racing just needed to learn how to win. They needed to learn how to hold onto a lead. The Challenge Cup has given them the perfect opportunity to learn how to do that. It’s been a big morale boost for the team and has given new players extra time on the pitch to build chemistry and learn how to play in Racing’s system.

Looking Ahead

Exactly how much Racing has learned will be put to the test on Saturday when they play the North Carolina Courage in Cary. Racing historically has a -17 goal differential against North Carolina and their worst performances have unquestionably been in North Carolina. They came close to drawing the Courage when they met a few weeks ago in Louisville and produced more chances, but just couldn’t find the back of the net enough to pull back a point.

It doesn’t help that North Carolina is on a hot streak. After a shocking loss to the Kansas City Current in early June where they failed to even register a shot before well into the second half, the Courage have earned three straight wins including a 5-0 thrashing of the Chicago Red Stars and a dominant 3-0 win over the Orlando Pride. Their attack is heating up immensely thanks to Brazilian star Kerolin and it’ll be hard to contain.

The good news for Racing, however, is that Milliet did a great job of containing Kerolin in their first match-up. Also, that loss to Kansas City shows that North Carolina is still capable of being rattled and thrown off their game. Racing has been a more consistent team as of late and will be hard to break down as well.

Can Racing pull a point off North Carolina? It’ll be a hard task for sure, but if Racing can pull it off and get all three points, they might just find themselves heading into the World Cup period in playoff position.

Bekki Morgan

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