Staying in the Fight
After a crushing loss to the Dash on Friday, Racing Louisville came back strong on Wednesday to draw the Chicago Red Stars 0-0. Both teams were coming off their first losses of the season and both were hungry for a win. Despite the lack of goals, this exciting back-and-forth match was one of Racing’s most consistent showings yet. This draw also marks the first clean sheet ever for goalkeeper Katie Lund and the first clean sheet for the team since June 2021.
Signs of improvement were everywhere for Racing, including a continuously improved attack, better movement while in formation, and more aggressive play overall. Most promisingly, there was no sign of a hangover from Friday’s loss. Even when they were not fully in control of the game, Racing played harder and less hesitantly than they have all season. Fatigue seemed to affect them in the second half, but they never became complacent as they have previously.
After the match, Coach Kim Björkegren praised the team for their sustained fighting spirit.
“I’m proud of them that they keep working hard together,” said the coach. “The one point here is not that bad.”
Striker Ebony Salmon agreed and said this match showed the team’s resiliency.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the win,” she said, “but obviously we were even more disappointed last Friday, going up against Houston and losing the game 3-2. So I think tonight just to keep fighting as a team for 90 minutes and to get the point is good for us.”
Salmon is right in that this is a good next step for Racing. While three points would have been ideal, earning a hard-fought draw with signs of continued progress everywhere is still a very solid result. Let’s take a look at the match, some of the key stats from the game, and some key takeaways to explore what this match showed us about Racing moving forward.
Racing started the match on the attack. Both Addisyn Merrick and Ebony Salmon had shots within the first two minutes. Chicago retaliated with a strong offensive response and kept control of the game through much of the first 15 minutes. The Red Stars best chance of the half came when a shot from Mal Pugh’s bounced off the far post in the 11′. Racing adjusted as the match continued, however, and were able to hold a significant majority of possession through the remaining half. Their best chance of the night came in the 45′ when a cross from Salmon was redirected by Emina Ekic into the crossbar only to be collected by Kirsten Davis whose shot hit the side of the net.
Racing once again started on the offense in the second half as Ebony Salmon put together several shots on goal. As Racing began to tire as the second half went on, however, Chicago responded by increasing their attack. With some help from substitutes, Racing was able to put together a few more chances later on. Most notably, a diving header from Emina Ekic did find the back of the net but was quickly called off-sides ending the match 0-0.
By The Numbers
Against Chicago, Racing earned some of their best numbers in recent memory. They had higher xG at 1.55 compared to Chicago’s 1.41. This is a massive improvement over only 0.55 against Houston and 0.52 against Kansas City. Regardless of whether you appreciate xG stats or not, it’s clear that the sustained effectiveness of Racing’s attack was significantly greater this match versus the last two.
Chicago had more shots at 13 compared to Racing’s 10, but Racing had more shots on target with five to Chicago’s two. The fact that Racing has been able maintain high shooting accuracy while narrowing the gap between their shots/shots on target and their opponents’ is a good thing. Last season, opponents regularly had double the number of shots that Racing did. This trend seemed to continue against Kansas City who had 24 shots to Racing’s eight. These last two matches have only seen a difference of a few goals which demonstrates both offensive and defensive improvement for Racing.
Racing has incrementally increased their percentage of possession each match. Against Kansas City, they had 46%. Against Houston, 47%. Now, against Chicago, they have 48%. Although these changes are minor, the fact they continue to trend upwards is a positive sign.
Across the Central Division
We’re at the halfway point of the Challenge Cup, so now’s a good time to compare numbers across the entire Central Division. Let’s start with attacking.
Unsurprisingly, Racing is last in the division in goals and shots on target. After all, Racing is the only team to not yet win a match. The good news, however, is that the difference in both stats is very slim. The best news is that their shooting accuracy is the highest in the division. So even if they’re not taking as many shots, they’re at least making them count. Last season, Racing was significantly behind every team in the league in goal differential and shots on target. The fact they’re at least keeping pace so far is a good sign.
Defensively, Racing still has some work ahead of them. They’ve faced the second-most shots in the division and have the lowest tackle success rate. They have also won far fewer duels and have the lowest duel success rate. Racing will have to work on their one-on-one play. While Emily Fox excels in this area, other players will need to step up, too. Coach Björkegren has said he’s very focused on increasing the level of technical skill on the team and so it’s likely this will be a continued point of focus.
Better news awaits Louisville when looking at distribution. Racing is second in their division in passing accuracy and number of successful passes. They do struggle in sending in crosses, although their crossing accuracy is a bit better than the Current. Keep in mind that even with the poorest passing accuracy, number of successful passes, and crossing accuracy, the Current still lead the division. Racing does a lot of lateral passing and passing backward to maintain possession. That’s not a bad thing for a team that’s still learning a new style of play. After all, learning to maintain possession is good for a team that struggled with that last season. But they’ll need to be more productive in their passing to be a truly effective team.
Mostly Positive Trends
All in all, Racing is showing continued signs of improvement. In terms of xG, in terms of shooting accuracy, in terms of possession, etc. all numbers are trending slowly in a positive direction. While it’s still extremely early, it’s good to see that they have maintained this slow build even after facing a hard loss. They’re controlling games more, they’re getting more aggressive in their challenges, and, most importantly, they’re keeping pace with their Central Division opponents.
Racing’s attacking is significantly improved over last year and seems to be getting better every match. For one of the first times ever, multiple players were making runs into the box. Most notably, during the extremely close call in the 45′, Salmon sent the ball in, Ekic was there to receive it, and Davis was there to collect the rebound. This sounds like Soccer 101, but it’s something Racing has struggled with constantly. Coach Björkegren wants to play a high pressing style. That only works if the team presses together. They did that extremely successfully in the first half against Houston and they did it somewhat successfully, but more consistently against Chicago. Hopefully, in just a few more games, it’ll snap together fully and Racing’s full attacking potential will be realized.
A less positive trend for Racing is the fact that there is some consistent fall off in the second half. For the third straight game, possession dropped significantly from the first half to the second. For the third time, passing accuracy has also dropped significantly from half to half while their opponents’ accuracy increased. It’s possible that some of this is fatigue and conditioning. Racing has a lot of players new to the league who aren’t quite used to the pace or physicality yet. Even so, Racing needs to learn how to adjust to their opponents as well as their opponents are learning to adjust to them.
Unsurprisingly, Björkegren made some big roster changes on Wednesday. Racing will play three matches in nine days by the end of the week so these changes were inevitable. As a result, Racing came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first time this season with Ebony Salmon starting up top as the lone striker. This formation worked well in that it let Salmon and Ekic play in their most natural positions. As a result, they both played their most effective match yet by far against Chicago.
While this formation kept Racing’s typical four-back, some personnel were tried in new positions. In particular, Julia Lester was moved into a center-back position while Addisyn Merrick went out wide. As with Ekic and Salmon, this switch brought out the best in both players. Merrick was able to use her speed and the slower, although more technically savvy Lester was able to make some excellent saves in the box. Merrick was also able to show off her versatility by swapping sides with Emily Fox halfway through the first half. The fact Racing has outer backs who can flip sides to optimize positioning is an excellent development of the team.
The biggest issue with this formation was how much it narrowed the field. Racing struggled to use width effectively all match as a result. Milliet stayed very central which kept Merrick from having a clear path forward on the left side. Davis stayed out wider but still wasn’t utilized as effectively as she has been in past matches.
All in all, the fact Björkegren is able to adapt tactics to best match the personnel available is a positive sign. He’s clearly aware of all his players’ strengths and weaknesses and he’s clever enough to adjust tactics to bring out their best instead of forcing them to adapt to his tactics. Instead of basing minutes primarily on competition as past Racing coaches have done, Björkegren seems to be interested in using the entire squad. This will hopefully go a long way in preventing injury while also continuing to develop younger players.
Julia Lester, Ebony Salmon, and Taylor Otto all got their first starts of the season this match and Taylor Malham earned her first professional minutes after being subbed in during the 90′.
After the match, Björkegren had extremely high praise for Salmon and Lester in particular. When asked if Salmon’s dominant performance would make choosing starters harder, he responded, “No, it makes my job much easier because I need good football players. And she did a good performance. The only thing she missed was a goal so that was good.”
Salmon led the team with four shots – all inside the box – with three on target. Of her performance, she said: “There’s a few times where I came close, and I think I’ll go back, watch the game, and look back on those chances to see what I can do differently…and turn those chances into goals.”
Julia Lester also had an extremely strong game. She was named Player of the Match in only her first start for Racing and second match overall. After the game, Björkegren said she was “one of the best players on the pitch” and her stats support it. She had the most passes of anyone on either team and had an amazing 94% passing accuracy.
Lester said her teammates’ belief in her helped boost her confidence and drive a top-notch performance.
“All of us as teammates, we support each other and that support really pushed me to go further,” she said after the match.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) March 31, 2022
Despite not having a win yet, Racing seems like a stronger team than last year. Every match it feels like they’re edging closer and closer to a win. The way they’re starting to press together and increase possession are clear indicators that they’re starting to figure out Coach Björkegren’ssystem. From the start, Björkegren has said he would start the players out by relearning the basics with a high focus on technical development. From there, he’d build on the established foundation until the team learned this new system in its entirety. Watching these matches, this seems to be exactly what’s happening.
The fact that Racing is a very young team with a lot of rookies has been repeated ad nauseam. But in the context of Friday’s match to the match against Chicago on Wednesday, this is an important point to note. Many of the rookies have only ever been on winning teams their whole lives. They were the best so they played in the best clubs and for the best colleges. It is undoubtedly a shock to the system to suddenly be on a professional team where no game is guaranteed and wins are hard to find. The fact that Racing came out after Friday’s loss without looking rattled speaks volumes to the team’s leadership and the players’ resiliency.
Tomorrow, Racing will face the Current in Kansas City. The last time they met Racing, it was the opener of the Challenge Cup and the match ended in a draw. Since then, Kansas City has gone on to win their next two games while Racing earned a loss and a draw. With Kansas City energized and at home, it’ll be a tough test for Racing even with their star Lynn Williams out with a season-ending injury.
Despite the challenge ahead, this is a winnable game for Racing. If there’s one thing that’s become clear this Challenge Cup, it’s that every game is winnable. No one team is standing fully apart from the others as a dominant force. Most games come down to consistency and small mistakes that are taken advantage of by opponents. And with Racing showing signs of improvement each match, they have just as good a chance as anyone to take home three points.
In their draw with Chicago, Racing demonstrated how resilient and adaptable they can be. They’ve also shown growth in consistency. On Wednesday, Ebony Salmon said she was happy they had such a quick turnaround after their loss because it let them step passed it quickly. With another quick turnaround, Racing will be looking to take the next step and actually earn a win. And if they hold together defensively and continue to build up their consistency, it could very well be anyone’s game.