Racing Louisville continued their Challenge Cup winning streak when they topped the Houston Dash 3-0 Wednesday. As a result of this win, Racing continues to sit firmly atop the Central Division standings and is now the only team in the entire league to have remained unbeaten across the first three group stage matches in the tournament.”
“We played really good football tonight,” head coach Kim Björkegren said. “We worked in our attack and created a lot of chances. The only thing I can complain over is to maybe kill the game off a little bit earlier, but overall I’m happy with our performance.”
Racing got off to a slightly slow start with Houston getting their two best chances within the first twelve minutes of the match. However, after that, Racing took almost complete control of the game and peppered Houston’s goal with chances. They finally broke through in stoppage time when rookie Kayla Fischer scored her first professional goal off an assist from Ary Borges. Just a minute later, before the smoke had even cleared from the field from the first goal, Savannah DeMelo toe-poked a second one into the upper right corner with the outside of her foot in true, flamboyant DeMelo style.
If Racing had a strong first half, they utterly dominated in the second. Houston could barely find their way out of their own half as Racing picked off passes regularly and continued to go for goal as if it was still a 0-0 draw. A set piece taken by Carson Pickett in the 73rd minute found the head of Parker Goins who nodded it effortlessly into the back of the net for Racing’s final goal of the night. Racing fans were also given a treat when hometown hero Emina Ekic returned to the pitch for the first time this season after suffering a broken ankle playing in Australia this winter. She was subbed in for DeMelo in the 79th minute.
Of course, it’s important to mention that, as this was a Challenge Cup match, Houston had rotated their squad heavily, including their entire back five. This may temper the win a bit, but for a young team still learning how to win games, every opportunity to get three points is a big one.
“I think it was just a really good team win,” said Fischer who won Player of the Match accolades. “We still have some things to work on, playing faster, but I think we came out with the energy. When you’re not playing your best soccer, if you can have the energy and be on your front foot the whole game, I think that’s what we did well.”
By the Numbers
This match was one of Racing’s most complete performances to date. According to Opta, they earned 2.57 xG to Houston’s 0.61. Louisville also had 20 shots with nine on target compared to Houston’s seven shots with only one on target. Racing also created five big chances to the Dash’s zero.
To demonstrate just how much Racing shut down Houston’s progress in the second half, take a look at both teams’ final third entries. Both teams had 22 apiece in the first half showing how it was a bit more of a back-and-forth match. In the second half, however, Racing had 30 to the Dash’s 13. Nearly every time Houston tried to move the ball forward, Racing gained control in the midfield and turned the game around again. Racing also had almost 63% possession in the second half compared to 54% in the first half (this averages to 58% possession for Racing across the whole match).
While her goal might be the most memorable part of her performance, Kayla Fischer had a standout match by almost all measures. She had at least double the shots of any other player (6), put more on target (3) than anyone on either team, and created two of Racing’s five big chances. She had more successful dribbles than anyone on either team as well (4) and won more duels than anyone else on the pitch (9).
Parker Goins also deserves a shoutout for scoring her third goal in just five appearances across all competition with all of them coming off the bench. For a team that’s struggling offensively, Racing may want to consider playing Goins more because scoring three goals in just 87 minutes of playing time is some excellent production.
Racing went with a formation they haven’t used in quite some time this match and lined up in a 4-2-3-1. This was their standard formation through most of last season, but they’ve typically played a more standard 4-3-3 in 2023. Racing released their lineup as if it was a 4-3-3 (seen on the left below) but in execution, it was like the image on the right.
What this essentially means is that Fischer slotted into the central attacking midfield role with DeMelo moving out to play as the No. 7. Moving Fischer in centrally really opened up her options in attack and made her a much more effective player on the pitch. Although DeMelo has primarily played as the No. 10 this year, she has experience playing across the entire midfield from her rookie year, and, judging by the match’s results, moving her didn’t impact her effectiveness at all. In fact, moving DeMelo right arguably helped strengthen Racing’s weaker right side while not doing much to impact the stronger left. Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett, Jaelin Howell, and Paige Monaghan continue to have excellent chemistry together so that side remained solid.
After the match, Björkegren said that the decision came about in part because Fischer had a really good preseason where she scored several goals, all while playing in the No. 10 position. He also said that DeMelo likes playing as a No. 7, so the decision was apparently an easy one.
Is this a potentially more permanent solution to some of Racing’s attacking issues? In a very brief conversation at the end of the match, before the press conference started, Michael Shaw of Fleur de Lis FC and I both had the same conclusion which is that moving Wang Shuang into the No. 10 spot in a 4-2-3-1 and keeping DeMelo to the right might work better than the 4-3-3 they’ve been using recently. It might free Wang up to play in a more natural central role that better utilizes her skills without losing anything on either wing.
After all, it’s no secret that scoring goals is Racing’s last real barrier keeping them from moving up the standings. As discussed last week, Racing is conceding significantly fewer goals than they did last year, but their rate of scoring remains identical. Maybe a continued experiment will help shake things up a bit — especially with Fischer guaranteed to get more minutes with Wang and gone during the World Cup.
On a streak
Across all competition, Racing has now been unbeaten in seven of their last eight matches.
“I think everybody who’s following Racing can see we’re a different team this season,” said Björkegren about the team’s current run of form. Although he admits that the team still has to grow more offensively and that the team is still young, it’s clear that this is a team with a great deal of potential.
Of those last eight matches, Racing has won five, drawn two, and lost one. That is unquestionably their best run of form in club history. The only issue, of course, is that three of those wins are in the Challenge Cup and all wins against the same three teams who all sit at the bottom half of the table. While these facts might temper the excitement over their strong run of form a bit, it’s hard to dismiss how important these wins are for the purpose of team morale. This is still a young squad that’s learning how to win. Good for them for using the Challenge Cup as a venue to do that.
Björkegren and Racing have had no qualms about admitting they’re taking the Challenge Cup seriously. They aren’t rotating their squad the way other teams are. While Houston rotated their entire back five and eight players total, for example, Racing only started with three players rotated into the starting lineup — Fischer, Monaghan, and Kanu — and chose to sub out starters once they established a strong lead. It helps that Racing has a young squad and has had the schedule work out in a way that they’ve been home for stretches including these midweek games. It allows them to push their starters a little harder than other teams might be as willing to, because the fact of the matter is, the Challenge Cup is Racing’s best chance of getting hardware this season.
In the regular season standings, Racing sits back in ninth place as those leads they gave up early in the season are really starting to come back and haunt them. They’ll need to start winning regularly instead of splitting points if they have any hope of grabbing a playoff spot. And if the morale boost gained from strong Challenge Cup performances can help give them an extra edge, all the better. And if they don’t make it in the regular season, but still make it into the Challenge Cup playoffs, a nice monetary bonus will be waiting for them, so it’s really a win/win situation.
Next up Racing will welcome NJ/NY Gotham to Louisville for their first match-up in the 2023 season. Both teams have changed a lot since they last saw each other. Gotham gained Lynn Williams, Kristen Edmonds, and Kelley O’Hara and Allie Long is back from maternity leave. They also picked up former Racing player Nealy Martin from the waiver wire during the off-season. Racing, meanwhile, has added Wang Shuang, Uchenna Kanu, Thembi Kgatlana, Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett, and, of course, Paige Monaghan who spent her whole career with Gotham prior to coming to Louisville. So, in short, these are very different teams! They also play very complementary styles, so it’ll almost certainly be an interesting, fast-paced match-up.
Gotham currently sits in fifth place with five wins and three draws. They have cooled off a bit as the season progressed and have only one win in the past five matches. They just haven’t been able to score many goals. They haven’t cooled off fully, though, because they also only have one loss. Still, this is a top-five team that Racing should feel that they can get points off of. It won’t be easy, but if they can’t start beating teams at the lower end of the top six, then their playoff hopes are certain to be dashed.