Racing Earns First Challenge Cup Win in 3-2 Victory Over the Current

“A Great Job on the Details”

Racing was up to the challenge on Wednesday night when they topped the Kansas City Current 3-2 in Louisville’s first Challenge Cup match of the year.

This is the second game Racing has won in a single week by scoring three goals. The previous Friday, they blanked the Chicago Red Stars 3-0 for their first win of the regular season and now on Wednesday, they earned their first Challenge Cup win as well.

In both games, Racing played well as an entire unit and managed to clean up many of the mistakes that caused them to give up results earlier in the season and play more consistently. Racing generated 16 chances overall compared to Kansas City’s six.

“We’ve just been doing a great job on the details – finishing our opportunities, getting numbers in the box,” said midfielder Savannah DeMelo who scored her first brace on Wednesday. “It’s just been a full team effort and a full 90 minutes in both (wins).”

Despite the close scoreline, this was a match almost entirely dominated by Racing. Louisville did get off to an initially shaky start and let in an early goal in the 17th minute. After a goal from Racing’s Uchenna Kanu was called back in the 24th minute, they got one back in the very next play when Jordan Baggett intercepted keeper A.D. Franch’s kick out and sent a perfect pass into Savannah DeMelo who was waiting at the top of the box. DeMelo sent in an unbelievable shot with the outside of her right foot into the upper left corner that froze Franch and put Racing on the board. Just four minutes later, DeMelo struck again as she collected a poorly cleared ball off a cross from Kanu to give Racing two.

In the second half, Racing stayed mostly on the front foot even when Kansas City subbed in major attacking powers like Debinha, Cece Kizer, and Lo LaBonta. Even so, in the 86th minute, Ary Borges added a third goal for Racing only a couple of minutes after subbing in thanks to a great run by fellow substitute Thembi Kgatlana. Racing got a little too eager for a fourth, however, because they decided to take a regular corner instead of a defensive one a couple of minutes later which allowed Debinha to break free and score after going virtually one-on-one against Racing’s keeper Katie Lund. When they earned another corner in stoppage time, they didn’t make the same mistake and saw out the win 3-2.

This was Racing’s first-ever home win in the Challenge Cup and only their second win in tournament history. They previously beat the Current in April 2022 when they beat them 3-0 in Kansas City.

In an odd schedule quirk, Racing will be playing the Current again on Saturday in a regular season match in Kansas City.

By the Numbers

Racing’s dominant performance was very evident statistically. Racing took more shots than they’ve taken all season – and possibly ever – with 20 compared to Kansas City’s eight. Racing did have only four shots on goal, however, and Kansas City had two. Racing also generated their most xG all season with 2.33. Kansas City comparatively only had 0.75. Ten of 16 players for Racing that saw the field generated xG this match versus Kansas City who only saw six players out of 15 generate xG.

Racing also held the most possession in this match with 55%. So unlike the Chicago match where they let Chicago hold possession but controlled the game off the ball, they actually held onto the ball against Kansas City and forced turnovers constantly.

Racing has also maintained its very high passing accuracy this year with 80% compared to the Current’s 72%. For a team that regularly had passing accuracy in the sixties the last two seasons, this is a very welcome statistical trend for Louisville.

Racing celebrates a goal / Image courtesy Jordan Prather-NWSL LCC

Racing also dominated Kansas City’s output in stats like final third entries (LOU: 58; KC: 43), passes in the opposition’s half (LOU: 243; KC: 167), corners won (LOU: 11; KC: 5), dribbles (LOU: 24; KC: 6), and possession won in the final third (LOU: 13; KC: 5). Taken all together, these stats tell the story of a team (Racing) that was able to keep their opponent (Kansas City) on the back foot for most of the night which was exactly the case.

Kansas City has never beaten Racing in Louisville. All games have either been draws or wins making Kansas City one of the teams Racing has played the best against historically.

In individual player stats and milestones, DeMelo recorded her very first brace which is also the second brace in club history. The only previous brace was Nadia Nadim’s against the Washington Spirit last year. Jordan Baggett recorded her first assist in her first start and Kgatlana earned her second assist in just two matches and approximately 45 minutes across all competition. This was yet another game where Jaelin Howell had the most interceptions of any player on either team (5) and Satara Murray came in second across both teams with four.

Interestingly, Lund only made one save all match while opposing keeper Franch had zero.

Jaelin Howell celebrates DeMelo’s first goal / Image courtesy Jordan Prather-NWSL LCC

Key Takeaways

In it to win it

There is no question that Racing went into this match prioritizing a win. All midweek matches require a balancing of rotation to keep players fresh – especially with another match coming just three days later – but Racing put out enough big starters to show they were in it to win it.

Even though they did rotate defenders Zaneta Wyne and Satara Murray and midfielders Jordan Baggett and Alex Chidiac in for their first starts of the season, big names like DeMelo, Howell, Carson Pickett, and Abby Erceg stayed in the lineup with Howell, Pickett, and Erceg playing all 90 minutes. Comparatively, Kansas City had more rotation, but still brought out most of their big guns in the attack like Debinha and Kizer to try and grab control of the game to no avail.

“It was really important (to win the first game),” said Racing coach Kim Björkegren. “We were talking about that before the game – it was necessary to win the home game against Kansas City today. We’re really happy with the win, and to build the culture that we can win was maybe even more important for us.”

Although Björkegren primarily frames wanting to win around getting a leg up in the Challenge Cup, it’s clear that winning at home was just as much about maintaining momentum in the regular season as well. After struggling to get a win through the first six matches of a season, there’s no question Racing needed to build off their first win on Saturday to carry them forward. Now they’ll be just as tired as Kansas City heading into Saturday’s game, but they’ll have the lift of two wins and six points in their sails to carry them forward. Even with potentially better-rested players and home-field advantage, Kansas City will still be pulling against the anchor of three consecutive losses across all competition.

“Three points always gives you a boost,” remarked Abby Erceg in a pre-match press conference on Tuesday. “You can be tired and winning and still feel totally fine. Everything seems a little bit harder when you don’t manage to get those three points or you don’t manage to get the points you think you deserve for the performances you put in.”

It was also important for Racing to get a second win at home. Attendance has been lagging compared to the past two seasons and winning is the surest way to bring it back up. Even good performances that earn draws aren’t enough to bring in casual fans, so prioritizing the win at home – even potentially at the risk of making a win harder on Saturday in Kansas City – is a reasonable gamble to make.

Even so, Wang Shuang and Julia Lester will be available fully rested. Defenders Elli Pikkujämsä and Lauren Milliet will be mostly rested against the strong starters for Kansas City that came in on Wednesday as subs, as will midfielder Ary Borges. Even though they didn’t get rested, it seems likely Racing will probably still play Erceg, Pickett, and Howell for most if not all of Saturday’s match. They’re three of the most important players on the pitch for Racing and they’re also some of the fittest which will hopefully give them the endurance needed to power through the dense week of games.

Goals for goals

This is the second match in a row where Racing scored three goals. If Borges hadn’t scored that third insurance goal, this would have been another frustrating draw.

If Racing is going to play a high-pressing style, scoring at least three goals is likely going to have to become a habit. It’s a high-risk/high-reward system and they need to start capitalizing on the reward part if they’re going to stay ahead.

In 2023, Racing is doing okay in terms of scoring. They’re solidly in the middle of the pack with nine goals scored and nine conceded for the regular season. Their biggest issue remains finishing. They’re getting a huge number of shots on goal. In fact, they are second in the league in shots on goal in the regular season with 41. Portland leads with 55 shots on goal but has double the reward with 18 goals.

Image showing goals superimposed over shots on goal listed goal/shots on goal: Hou 5/30, ORL 5/29, NJNY 7/33, NCC 8/25, KCC 9/32, LOU 9/41, WAS 10/36, LA 11/28, CHI 11/31, OLR 12/28, SD 12/28, POR 18/55
Goals and shots on goal through seven games in the NWSL regular season

In other words, Racing is doing more work than they should for the results they’re getting.  If they can start finishing these shots more clinically, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in no time.

Although it’s disappointing they’re not scoring, this is a major improvement over the past two seasons where Racing failed to even take shots. The fact they’re getting shots off that are on target is a first step, but they need to be scoring more.

Racing scores nothing but beauties

One interesting thing about Racing’s goals this season is how unique they’ve been. Almost every goal has been a jaw-dropper. Just look at DeMelo’s goal on Wednesday using the outside of her right foot, or Ary Borges’ goal against the Spirit that was instantly branded a candidate for goal of the year, or Kirsten Davis’ strike against Angel City. Even Abby Erceg’s header to open Racing’s scoring in 2023 was thrilling thanks to the sheer height of her jump.

These are some beautiful, exciting goals to witness and there’s no complaining about that. Racing is a fun team to watch. They can pull bangers seemingly out of thin air.

Most excitingly, Racing fans still haven’t seen everything they might have in their back pocket. After suffering a head injury and then an ACL sprain earlier in the year, Kanu hasn’t yet scored. Her pressing has become increasingly effective, however, and she’s getting closer and closer to finally hitting the back of the net. The closest, of course, is the goal that was called off on Wednesday. Once she clicks and fully recovers and adjusts to the speed and style of play in the league, she could very well take off just as Racing is coming together.

Likewise, we haven’t yet even come close to seeing what Thembi Kgatlana might offer. She’s only made three appearances for Racing so far after recovering from an Achilles rupture last season. She barely had time to get a touch in her 10 or so minutes against Orlando, but in the next two games, she’s earned an assist in each despite only playing about 15 or 20 minutes in each game. Her speed and agility are something that opponents just can’t seem to handle. Even still coming back from injury, she’s the fastest player on Racing’s roster so it’s exciting to think of what she’ll look like wants she’s fully fit.

Racing players celebrate a goal / Image courtesy EM Dash-USA Today Sports

Looking Ahead

What can really be said about Racing next match except it’ll be more of the same against Kansas City. Once again, we can look forward to some significant rotation among the teams. The Current will be even more eager to win it, so this will be a tough match against what is likely to be a big crowd in Kansas City.
One of the most interesting things about the Current so far in 2023 is their inability to stick to a formation or style. There have been plenty of questions raised over the years about Racing’s adherence to an aggressive, high-pressing style no matter what but Kansas City’s regular shuffling hasn’t been particularly beneficial either.
The most important thing for Racing to do in this match is to come out and play like themselves regardless of what the Current throw at them. DeMelo has been electric, Howell has been rock solid, Pickett and Erceg as reliable as they come. Whether it’s a three-back, a four-back, or a five-back, Racing needs to play with the confidence that’s buoyed them these past two games. They’re getting numbers in the box offensively, playing both sides of the ball, and connecting very well. If they can stay together as a unit and keep from devolving into individual play or getting pushed onto their back foot, they have a very good chance of getting a result against an equally tired team that can’t enjoy the momentum Racing has behind them.

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.