Mirror, Mirror: Racing Louisville Settles for a Draw Against Angel City

A little devastating

“It’s a little devastating because I think we felt like we could have gotten that three points,” admitted Savannah DeMelo after Racing Louisville gave up a two-goal lead in Los Angeles to draw Angel City 2-2 on Saturday.

Racing went up in the first moments of the match when DeMelo drew and then converted a penalty in the third minute. Approximately 30 minutes later, Jaelin Howell won the ball back in midfield and passed to DeMelo who played a through ball into Kirsten Davis who sent a banger in from outside the box. In the second half, however, Racing came out okay but ultimately couldn’t keep up the aggressive high press they maintained in the first half. Angel City’s Katie Johnson scored off a set piece in the 68th minute and Savannah McCaskill found the equalizer in the 87th minute to pull back a point for the home side.

“I think that’s just the last step for this team is just winning games and not just being okay tying,” continued DeMelo. “We are a winning team and we want to be a winning team and have a winning culture. So I think we’re right there.”

This is Racing’s third draw in three games which leaves them with a still-undefeated record. But of all games played, despite the fact that all matches ended the same way with the same number of points, there’s no question this one felt the most like a loss.

In many ways, this game was an almost complete mirror image of Racing’s previous match against the Washington Spirit. In addition to both being 2-2 draws, Louisville scored a goal in the first minutes of their good half followed by an absolute banger from outside of the box for the second goal. The only difference is they charged back to score against Washington to earn the point while they gave up to goals and dropped points to Angel City instead.

“In the end, they put a lot of pressure on us,” Racing coach Kim Björkegren said. “They scored a goal from a free kick with almost no angle. It’s way too easy for us to give them that kind of energy. That’s not good enough from us. We need to do better there.”

By the Numbers

If there was ever a game that could be called a tale of two halves for Racing this is the one.

The match ended with Racing having a total of 13 shots and Angel City having 25. Eleven of Racing’s 13 shots came in the first half alone meaning they only managed two in the entirety of the final 45 minutes. Angel City, on the other hand, had 10 in the first half and added an additional 15 in the second.

It is worth noting, however, that Racing’s quality of shots was better according to StatPerform which had them listed as generating a full 2.15 xG compared to Angel City’s 1.97. This isn’t overly surprising, however, considering that Racing had a penalty kick that yielded 0.788 xG on its own while Angel City’s set piece goal was from a tight angle and only generated 0.176. Even if you remove the penalty, however, Racing still has an xG of 1.36 which is only about 0.30 less than Angel City’s full game total in 12 fewer shots.

For a team that likes possession, Racing didn’t do particularly well this match even in the first half. In the first 45, they had 44.3% but in the second half, this dropped to an abysmal 35.7%.

Initially, passing accuracy seemed to be a bit above average for Racing at 72.7%. In the second half, however, this dropped precipitously to 61.2%.

In more positive news, this match marked defender Abby Erceg’s 150th regular season match in the NWSL. She’s only the third international player to reach this milestone. On the opposite side of on-pitch experience, rookie Kayla Fischer made her regular season debut and earned the start in her first cap. She performed solidly and generated the third-highest xG of any Racing player coming in behind only the night’s two goal scorers DeMelo and Davis. She also won all three of her tackles.

Speaking of Davis, she really made a strong argument for more minutes by taking more shots (4) than any other Racing player and generally remaining a nuisance for Angel City all night. She continues to take a few too many touches in the box when she could just shoot, but she came exceedingly close to scoring in every one of her four shots even if only the one scored was on frame.

Other standout players included Carson Pickett who tied DeMelo for the most chances with three, led Racing in touches (67), total passes (43), final third entries (10), tied Howell in number of tackles (5), and won three of them. Lauren Milliet beat all players on both teams in possession won with 14 which nearly doubles the number of her next closest teammates, DeMelo, who had eight. She also won seven of her 10 duels. Jaelin Howell also roared back onto the starting lineup and won eight of 11 duels.

Second half stumble

Even with some bright individual performances, there’s no question Racing stumbled hard in the second half. So why did Racing finish the game out so flat?

For one, the match truly changed momentum around the 70th minute after Angel City subbed in Alyssa Thompson and Ali Riley – two regular starters who were rested after the international break. Riley is the team captain and a veteran leader who was able to better organize her side and keep them tighter and more effective. Although only a teenager, Thompson is one of the fastest and most effective forwards in the league. Her speed was too much for an already tired Racing and a foul on her from just outside the box was the set piece that led to Angel City’s first goal.

Racing didn’t have the same game changers available on the bench because they were dealing with roster issues relating to the international break, injury, and illness, said Racing’s head coach Kim Björkegren. Striker Uchenna Kanu was removed from play only an hour or so before the match began due to injury and Wang Shuang was still in China on an excused absence. Elli Pikkujämsä and Ary Borges were on limited minutes due to illness and fatigue, so while Pikkujämsä did start, she was only able to play for so long before being taken out. Borges was subbed in later in the match but was unable to help Racing shift momentum back into the team’s favor.

Every one of these players has been pivotal for Racing in their first two matches so figuring out to not just deal with substitutions, but also configure the formation was an issue. For example,  Howell returned to the starting lineup after a hamstring injury by playing in the No. 8 spot for the first time in her professional career. This was deliberate so Pikkujämsä could play as the No. 6 which requires less running and allowed her to stay on the field longer. In the past, DeMelo or Borges would have taken the No. 8 spot so Pikkujämsä could shift to center back and Howell could play as the No. 6. But without Wang or Nadia Nadim, DeMelo was needed in the No. 10 spot, and without Borges starting, Pikkujämsä was the next best holding midfield option. There are questions about whether subbing Paige Monaghan or Parker Goins in earlier could have at least provided Racing some of the speed they needed to maintain possession and control the match a bit more, but that’s purely speculative.

Players celebrate DeMelo’s penalty / Image courtesy NWSL

The good news is that despite the slightly off roster, Racing still performed excellently in the first half. In fact, it might have been their best 45 minutes ever on the pitch. They kept Angel City stretched and pressed them relentlessly to force turnovers and ultimately kept control of the game. Angel City did show signs of danger, however, and got more crosses off than they should have in the first half. And even if Angel City’s early shots were rushed and ultimately weak – in part due to Racing’s excellent pressure – they still had some decent chances and were able to figure out how to course correct in the second half. Racing seemingly came into the second half too content with their lead, didn’t seem to know how to handle Angel City’s adjustments, and became fragmented as a result. And with a depleted bench they couldn’t keep the effective press through both halves and got burned badly as tired legs faced dynamic Angel City subs.

“Our mentality was good – it’s just, in the end, we didn’t play well in the second half,” said Howell. “A team like LA, with as many chances as they got, they’re going to finish them. It’s early in the season, though, and (defender Abby Erceg) and I were talking: It’s just about how to pick each other up when we’ve lost momentum in a game like that. Honestly, this team doesn’t have a lot of experience being up that many goals going into the second half, so I think it’s a learning experience for us.”

Howell is right. The team does lack experience in being up that early. In fact, Racing has never been up by two in the first half in club history. And no player has ever scored a goal and an assist in the first half for Racing until DeMelo on Saturday. Even with the less-than-ideal result, these are positive steps for Racing. Teams need to actually get up by multiple goals in the first half to learn how to defend the lead, after all. That doesn’t mean the players are any less disappointed, though.

“That’s why we’re all so disappointed, just because we know how good we are and we know we’re right there,” Racing captain Jaelin Howell said. “It’s just fine-tuning these little things, especially in a game like this it’s hard because it was right there. We wanted those first three points. We talked about it. We want to change the culture of this team into a winning culture and we need to get in the habit of winning, and we wanted that to be tonight. But obviously it’s a learning opportunity. We haven’t been up two goals like that. Next time, we’ll be better, and we’ll know how to defend.

“Being disappointed is a good thing because we know we have that much more to show and give, and we’re right there.”

A tale of two Savs

As much as the game was a tale of two halves, it was also a tale of two Savs with Savannah DeMelo and Savannah McCaskill fully driving much of the momentum of their respective clubs. Both Savannahs were the most consistently dangerous playmakers and both were involved with both other their team’s goals with each earning both a goal and an assist.

It’s also interesting that both Savannahs played very emotionally and that also seemingly impacted their match. In the first half, DeMelo was calm, cool, and collected despite being fouled quite heavily. She was one of the most dynamic players on the pitch for Racing as she made excellent runs in the box or strung together key passes that created chances. McCaskill, on the other hand, was clearly frustrated throughout the first half and over-dribbled or rushed shots instead of taking the time she had to line them up better.

Switch to the second half and it was evident it was DeMelo that began to get upset and her play suffered as a result. While she was still dynamic on the pitch, she got much rougher and began committing some unnecessary fouls that ultimately earned her a deserved yellow card (amusingly, for a foul against McCaskill). McCaskill instead settled down and cleaned up her timing and scored a banger of a goal as a result.

This mirroring of the Savannahs doesn’t necessarily mean much beyond the fact that they are both still very much at the top of players to watch on their respective teams. But for better or for worse, it was possible to see how each team was performing at nearly any given time just from watching either McCaskill or DeMelo.

Looking ahead

Racing will stay on the west coast for the next week so they can take on the Thorns in Portland this Saturday. In bad news, this is a very long trip away from home. In good news, this will drastically cut down on travel fatigue and recovery plus it’ll keep them acclimated to the time zone.

The extended trip also means they won’t have a Challenge Cup game this Wednesday like most teams in the league. For some NWSL players, the midweek Challenge Cup match means three games in nine days. For a team that was already exhausted in Los Angeles, this could be deadly for Racing, but hopefully, they’ll be able to rest and rehab and get critical players like Pikkujämsä, Kanu, and Borges back into tip-top shape.

They’ll need to be on their best as well because the Thorns are by far the most dominant team in the league so far this season. They rolled the Orlando Pride 4-0 in their first match and then followed that up with a 4-1 drubbing of Kansas City. Most recently, however, they only drew Houston Dash 1-1. Considering Racing both drew the Houston Dash and nearly drew the Thorns in the preseason, they might have a reasonable chance of pulling a point back from Portland. To do so, they’ll have to be healthy and find a level of consistency across all 90 minutes that they’ve been missing in these last two games. Racing can also hope that Portland will be the tired team this time with a midweek Challenge Cup game in San Diego happening this Wednesday. Even without their starters, however, Portland is dangerous and it’ll take a ton of hard work from Racing to get a result.

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.