Racing Louisville stay perfect in Challenge Cup with 2-0 win over Chicago

Picture Perfect

Racing Louisville became the only team with a perfect record in the Challenge Cup on Wednesday when they topped the Red Stars 2-0 in Chicago.

“It’s really important for us,” said coach Kim Björkegren. “We really want to play in the semifinals [of the Challenge Cup]. We felt that two important games were the Kansas City home and the game away in Chicago, and now we are in a good situation. We have everything in our own hands.”

The game was won off a goal by Uchenna Kanu late in the first half for her first goal in the NWSL. After a couple of tough months marked by injury and adjustment to the new league, the goal was an immense relief to Kanu as well as her club who have been hoping she could bolster Racing’s goal-scoring abilities.

“I’m super excited and happy to have gotten my first goal,” Kanu said. “Good job from Jaelin [Howell] and Paige [Monaghan] for making the amazing run. The counterattack was really good. I was just in the right spot, got the pass from Paige and I was able to finish it. I was super excited, and I’m looking forward to more goals to come.”

An insurance goal was scored via a header from Parker Goins in the 71st minute off a set piece from Savannah DeMelo. This is the second time Goins has scored a late insurance goal against Chicago in a matter of a few weeks. The header was perfectly executed and arched high and into the corner outside the reach of Chicago’s keeper. It went so high, in fact, that Goins didn’t even think she scored initially.

“Honestly, I thought I hit it over (the bar), so I wasn’t paying attention and I turned around. I saw it went in, and I was just super excited.”

Racing has never won two matches in the Challenge Cup – never mind consecutive ones. As a result of this match, Racing now sit solidly on top of the Central Division standings and, with six points, are only one point behind OL Reign who have played one more game than Racing.

Uchenna Kanu pushes past Chicago defenders / Image courtesy USA Today

By the Numbers

Racing did a good job of holding onto the majority of possession (56% ) throughout the game. If the Red Stars tried to move the ball through the midfield, chances were it got taken away. The midfield and forwards did a particularly good job of pressing this game to win the ball back for Racing. As seen in the passing chart in the embedded tweet below, Chicago barely even got out of their side in the first half.

Ary Borges won all three of her tackles and also intercepted the ball three times. Paige Monaghan won both of her two tackles as well. Despite only being in for a single half, Thembi Kgatlana faced 15 total duels and won seven of them and, as a result, was the leader for both teams in both those stats. Kgatlana also blew everyone else on both teams out of the water with six out of 11 successful dribbles.

There’s no question that Racing continues to generate chances at a rate they’ve never before achieved. In this match, they generated 2.06 xG compared to Chicago’s 0.31. This is the fourth game in five that they’ve generated over 2 xG after only doing it twice in all of 2022.

They had 17 shots to Chicago’s seven and created two big chances to the Red Star’s zero. They more than doubled the Red Stars’ final third entries as well with 62 for Louisville compared to Chicago’s 29.

The issue comes when you see that Racing only had seven of those 17 shots on goal. After all those final third entries, 16 crosses, and four corners, Racing only managed to get seven shots on frame. Once again, Racing just isn’t finishing their chances.

Key Takeaways

Still Not Finishing

Racing has now won four out of their last five matches. They just shut out the Chicago Red Stars for the second time this year. They have positive goal differentials in both the Challenge Cup and the regular season. It feels nitpicky to rag on them when they’re producing good results, but the bottom line is they should be doing even better.

Although the results between this game and Racing’s previous match against the North Carolina Courage are very different, the same problem persists in both: Racing must be clinical in their finishing. Racing has become quite adept at moving the ball forward through traffic. Whether it’s up the left flank from Abby Erceg to Carson Pickett to Savannah DeMelo to Paige Monaghan or if it’s through the middle from Jaelin Howell to any of the attackers or whether it’s on the right with Lauren Milliet connecting with Wang Shuang or sending in a cross, Racing is creating chances. They’re doing the work to get into dangerous areas, but they’re unable to finish and score goals.

This is a problem that’s well-known to the team. After Wednesday night’s game, head coach Kim Björkegren said, “I think we can score more goals from our chances…we should have scored the second goal a little bit earlier, but it’s no reason to complain when you take three points away against Chicago.”

It’s not easy to complain, maybe, but it’s not something that should be overlooked either. This was a dominant, positive win that Racing should be proud of, but Chicago is having a historically bad season. They can take this win, but they need to temper it with the North Carolina loss. Racing arguably outplayed the Courage but couldn’t put the game away due to a lack of finishing. That win could have pushed them all the way up next to playoff contention, but instead, they found themselves relying on Angel City and Orlando losing to not drop several spots down the standings.

Still, it’s a strong positive that Racing is generating these chances at all. In past seasons, Racing would be utterly dominated in shots and shots on goal. This season, they’ve been equal to or stronger than their opponents regularly enough to feel that that old problem has been put to bed. So Racing fans should trust the process, but without clinical finishing, it’s going to be hard for Racing to continue to climb the standings.

Growing Chemistry

For goals to start coming, players need to have good chemistry. They need to time their runs well and understand what their teammates are doing. This has been a huge problem for Racing in past seasons and a lesser, but still persistent one this season. Balls will be sent in but Kanu or Kirsten Davis won’t have their timing down.

Luckily, that seems to be changing. After some rough missed moments earlier in the first half, Howell connected with Monaghan who sent a ball into the path of Kanu who had perfectly timed her run. After that, the finish was relatively easy for Kanu. From this point, Kanu’s confidence only grew and she had another very good chance in the second half that was saved by Chicago’s Alyssa Naeher. Throughout the second half, she connected with substitute Thembi Kgatlana and Alex Chidiac so well that Chicago struggled to find a solution for the trio.

Speaking of Kgatlana, she was a force to be reckoned with all game. As soon as she came on in the second half, she ran rampant over Chicago and broke through their defense and midfield time and time again. Her many shots were just a hair off target. Kgatlana was hungry for a goal and her energy did not dip for even a moment she was on the pitch. If this is the type of performance Racing fans can start to look forward to from Kgatlana, Racing may get a huge boost in the attack once she’s fully healthy.

Abby Erceg versus Chicago / Image courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Getting Looks

In addition to strong performances from Kgatlana and Kanu, several of Racing’s players used this game to make an impression.

Most notably, Parker Goins with her second professional goal off that perfect header. Racing has had trouble finishing, but Goins has scored in two of four appearances. Goins didn’t have many chances for development last season, but she seems to have made a big jump forward in 2023. She’s definitely a great piece to bring off the bench, so maybe she should be considered for longer looks in the future – especially as Racing continues to struggle with their finishing.

Meanwhile, Jaelin Howell continues to be an absolute menace as the holding midfielder. She is often overshadowed by the flashier Savannah DeMelo who is also having an incredible season, but Howell’s ability to win balls and command the midfield has been vital to Racing’s success all year. When she was subbed out at half-time, Elli Pikküjämsa did a perfectly fine job when she moved into the No. 6 role. And yet it was still obvious how much more Chicago was able to control the game without Howell on the pitch. Their possession went up significantly and they got forward much more easily. So while she might be more quietly successful, Howell has absolutely been a game changer for Racing.

It’s also abundantly clear that Abby Erceg is the player Björkegren wants on the field at all times. Erceg’s ability to command the defense has arguably been the single most impactful change to Racing. Teams are not getting the same number of shots off against Racing that they used to because the defense has been so consistently organized. She’s also fast enough and reads the game well enough to not get beaten in transition in the way Racing was so often last season. But even in games when she’s not seeing much action, as in Wednesday’s game, she’s still playing a critical leadership role that’s helping to keep Racing’s positive goal differential alive.

As always, Lauren Milliet remains the other player Björkegren always wants on the field and Milliet has had two excellent games in a row. First, against North Carolina, she was able to run Kerolin off the ball consistently without a problem. Against Chicago, she was once again able to use her positioning to get between opponents and the ball to cut off runs, draw fouls, and stop attackers in their tracks. If she had issues last season and earlier this year about being too offensively minded and therefore exposing the right flank to attacks, she’s improved greatly as the season has progressed. She’s still getting forward and sending in crosses that lead to goals, as she did against the Courage, but she’s also been able to get back in time to stymie opponents during the transition which has saved Racing quite a few times.

Finally, Paige Monaghan had a stellar night. She’s been excellent in the build-up along the flank and her chemistry with Carson Pickett and Savannah DeMelo has been one of the brightest spots of Racing’s season. It was great to see that she was just as dynamic without Pickett and DeMelo starting. She’s been phenomenal in setting up plays all season and has only gotten better as time moves on – as seen through the assist she earned off Kanu’s goal. If she can fine-tune her finish, she has the potential to be one of the most important tools in Racing’s arsenal.

Paige Monaghan / Image courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Ahead

Now that Racing has gotten a positive mid-week result to help wash the taste of the frustrating loss to the Courage out of their mouths, they next head east to take on the Washington Spirit for the final time this regular season.

Last time they met, the Spirit charged ahead by two goals in the first half only to have Racing equalize in the second thanks to goals from Abby Erceg and Ary Borges. This means that the Spirit and Racing are fairly evenly matched. Racing can win this game, but it will be a vastly tougher match than the one against Chicago. Racing can’t afford to let Ashley Hatch split their center-backs the way she did last time. And with the Spirit tied in points for second place – although they technically sit in fifth place – that’ll be a tough order.

Lucky for Racing, they’re healthier than the last time they played the Spirit. Both Julia Lester and Pikküjämsa are healthy so Racing will have their choice to pair with Erceg. Kgatlana is getting more and more minutes each game and will definitely give the Spirit’s backline a workout the whole time she’s on the pitch. And, hopefully, Kanu’s renewed confidence will carry over to this next match, as well. Additionally, critical players like DeMelo, Pickett, and Howell are mostly rested so they should be in good shape to go a full 90 minutes if necessary. Hopefully, this will be enough to bump them over Spirit who are in a bit of a cool period.

After the Chicago match, Goins said the win against the Red Stars was just the boost Racing needs going into this next match. “We’ve been doing really well and had the setback against North Carolina, but all the girls have been showing up…Washington’s going to be a good test and I think we’re up to it.”

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.