In their final match of the season, Racing Louisville beat the Kansas City Current 1-0 with a late goal in the last minute of stoppage time from Jessica McDonald. Although Racing Louisville has been out of playoff contention for some time, this match did show a continued strong return to form. Just a few weeks ago, Racing played some of the worst games they’d ever played. Instead of folding, they came back and responded with some of the best games they’ve ever played. For an extremely young team with over half their starters 25 years old or younger, this shows a promising resilience that can hopefully be built on going into next year.
“It kind of brings me to tears how proud I am of the way we came back and fought to win in L.A. against 22,000 fans and to come here tonight and win it in stoppage time,” said an emotional Katie Lund after the match. “There really was no quit and I’m really proud of that.”
As mentioned by Lund, Racing has gone into their last several matches as fired up as they’ve ever been. They played for each other, played as a unit, and, as a result, played some really good soccer. Players have been saying all through Racing’s 13-game winless drought that once they started winning, the wins would keep coming and that’s exactly what happened. It just happened a bit later than anyone wanted. Still, it’s a culmination of the promise that Racing has been showing all season and, if they can carry that into next season, it’ll be hard to see how they won’t be playoff contenders.
Goal scorer Jessica McDonald joked that she waited until the very last second just to “keep people on the edge of their seat” before expressing just how important it was for the team to get this win.
“I’m just so proud of this team. If you look at our season, if you look at our record, we could have easily just given up these last few games. Easily. And we didn’t. We just wanted to fight for one another.”
Coach Kim Björkegren said he was very proud of the team’s fight after a tough season and that winning three out of the last four matches was big for all of them. He said it felt like the team “started something already today” that can grow in the future. He took the fact that they were able to pull out a win at the last minute in a close game as a sign of what Racing could be in the future.
“I hope this is something we can build on for the next year and I really believe so,” he said. “I’m super proud of the girls and how hard they worked.”
Finished 2022 on a high note! 🙌
Re-live the action from last night's win over the Current. 📽 pic.twitter.com/RyKjt51vNC
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) October 2, 2022
By the Numbers
Statistically, this was a very even game. Possession was very close with Racing having a slight edge with 53%. Shots were fairly even with Kansas City getting 13 and Racing getting 11. Shots on target looked more lopsided with the Current getting six to Racing’s two, but this, of course, doesn’t take into account the shots from Emina Ekic or McDonald that missed by mere inches. The xG tells a much clearer story with both teams earning an identical 0.87.
There are two stats that really tell the story of the night, however, if not the whole season. The first is the number of fouls. Racing committed nine but drew 18. It seemed like DeMelo, Howell, and Fox could barely move through the midfield without getting tripped or knocked down. In other words, they were driving Kansas City’s own midfield and defenders insane and needed to be pulled down in order to be stopped. Jaelin Howell led both teams in duels with 17 duels attempted and 11 won. The next closest player was DeMelo who had 15 attempted and won nine. The next closest player after her was Claire Lavogez from the Current who had 13 and won 8. So that’s very impressive from Racing’s rookie midfielders. Fox and DeMelo led both teams in interceptions with three apiece.
The second stat is Katie Lund making six saves and unequivocally earning the single-season saves record for the NWSL. This isn’t the best stat for Racing, but it’s a huge accomplishment for the first-year starting keeper. Many folks doubted the decision to start her and move on from Michelle Betos, but she’s more than proven her worth and, at times, single-handedly kept Racing in games. They end with a -12 goal differential which is hardly ideal, but a heck of a lot better than the -23 of Orlando or the -30 of NJ/NY Gotham. It’s all thanks to Lund that the team escaped a worse fate.
These four players – Lund, Fox, DeMelo, and Howell – are undoubtedly the future of Racing. They’re all 25 or younger, but already showing how incredible they might be. Throw in Kirsten Davis, Emina Ekic, Wang Shuang, Alex Chidiac, and more and you have a team exploding with youthful promise. After talking about the promise and potential all season long with few results, it seems like they might finally be turning the corner and be ready to take the next step in 2023.
In three of their last four matches, Racing has played spoiler to a team with lofty post-season aspirations. First, Racing stymied the Orlando Pride’s chances to reach the post-season just as they were on a bit of a resurgence. Next, they shocked Angel City in their last home match of the season by beating them 3-1 and realistically eliminating them from the playoffs. And, last night, they took on Kansas City who had the potential to earn the shield or, barring that, a bye week with a second-place finish. Instead, this loss handed the Current a fifth-place finish, no home playoff match, and no bye week. The fact Kansas City’s defensive midfielder and captain Desiree Scott also got double yellows means they’ll be facing their first post-season match down a critical player.
It’s not surprising that Racing is playing a bit more freely without the pressure of earning a playoff berth hanging over them. When they’re out but the teams they’re playing are in, the pressure is totally on their opponent. Even so, these aren’t bottom-of-the-table teams. Orlando ultimately crashed and finished below Racing, but not before nearly beating the San Diego Wave. Angel City was on the very cusp of the playoffs, playing at home in front of a sellout crowd, and had beaten Racing earlier in the season. And Kansas City was a shield contender going into Saturday’s game.
What really matters in these games, however, isn’t the wins themselves but how they won. These games weren’t won on luck, they were won through skill. Let’s break down some of what Racing did right to get a full nine points in four matches to end their season.
Courage and Discipline
Once again, Racing played with confidence and discipline and it rewarded them greatly. They stifled Kansas City constantly and kept them from playing the way they wanted. In particular, Kansas City is typically quite good and pulling opponents out of position and then using the space they created. Defensively, Racing gave them practically no space to move at all. The defensive line stayed very tight and everyone on the field stepped up to make defensive plays and slow the Current.
After having a tough season, it was good to see the defensive line have another strong game. It isn’t a coincidence that the backline is finally coming together after playing a consistent lineup featuring all defenders. The partnership between Satara Murray and Gemma Bonner in the center of the field is starting to look really solid. As in both the other recent wins, they stayed well-positioned and read opponents’ movements well. Bonner made some excellent tackles to shut down the Current’s chances and led both teams in tackles (6) and tackles won (4) while Satara was able to block off runs or cut off crosses to end attacks. Julia Lester made some excellent runs and did an excellent job in the outer back role. And Emily Fox was back to her own, transcendent classic Fox quality where she played across the whole pitch at will switching sides or cutting up the center whenever she wished.
Hopefully, the success of this backline means the experiment with Lauren Milliet as a regular outer back is done – and not because she isn’t a good player. Quite the contrary, actually. Now that she’s back in the midfield, she’s showing just how excellent a midfielder she is. In the last two games alone, Milliet has been in the box constantly sending in crosses or making runs to try and be on the end of one. She was all over the field and much more effective not having to track back and be responsible for anchoring the right side’s defensive work. Lester and Fox were able to switch sides more freely which allowed everyone to play more effectively.
Racing also played much more confidently and courageously. If they lost possession, they immediately tried to retake it and often did. They challenged Kansas City constantly. They also played with a good deal of chemistry and anticipated each other’s movements well. All last season and through much of the early part of this season, Racing would have ridiculous numbers of turnovers. Passes would be misplayed and the ball would roll out of play or to the feet of an opponent. Balls would be lofted into space a dozen or so feet away from any teammate. Quick passes would be intercepted. Much of that is gone now. Even in the Portland loss, Racing played themselves back into the game at times and didn’t just crumble the way they had in the other recent losses.
Working Towards a Winning Mentality?
The real key to Racing’s success these past few games, however, is their mentality. The year started with a couple of promising wins. Then they hit a roadblock that they were never quite able to come back from. Even though the team was playing well, they were struggling to find wins and found themselves in a 13-game winless streak. Then they hit a really rough patch against Chicago and North Carolina and it seemed like the wheels had come off. But they rallied because, according to Lund, the team never stopped fighting.
“We didn’t give up and, you know, I think most teams could have said, ‘You know what? Let’s throw in the towel. It’s the end of the year. It doesn’t matter and we’re not going anywhere.’ But we didn’t. And to share that tonight with our fans is really special and only makes us more excited for next year.”
One of the keys to this mentality is their camaraderie, said Jessica McDonald.
“Overall, in the locker room, I can say that our camaraderie is so amazing. It’s a rare thing to come across on a team where there’s no type of animosity. And that’s something we’ve prided ourselves on was that friendship that we have in the locker room and just how good people everybody is. We have such good people on this team and everybody’s such a good listener.”
McDonald said that one of the team’s strengths is how coachable the young players are. They want to learn and grow, she said, and confidence in themselves is the last thing they need to work on and that’s something she and other vets like Gemma Bonner and Nadia Nadim have and will continue to help with.
“It can be scary sometimes, especially as a young player, so I’m just trying to help them build a little bit of confidence which is a tough thing to do at the pro level – especially as a young person.”
At the same time, McDonald also said that the team can’t have another year like this. If there ever was a honeymoon, it’s long over. Progress without results isn’t something that can be tolerated again. “It’s time to get things crackin’ at this point.”
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) October 2, 2022
After the match, Katie Lund said she was confident in where the team was headed.
“Obviously we’re looking to be in the playoffs next year,” Lund said. “That’s our goal and I have every belief and trust that the upstairs can do that for us and that Kim will have us there next year.”
This year, of course, Racing said playoffs were their goal, too. It’ll be a tall order for them to get to the playoffs next year without some additional help, as Lund alludes to. Even with the defensive line coming together, this is still where they need the most help. There isn’t much depth, so it would be nice to have a rock-solid center back to come in if someone gets injured or to allow for more rotation. It’d be good to have a speedier option in the center, also. This is likely where the club will focus its efforts in the off-season, but even as the team stands today, Jessica McDonald has absolutely no doubt Racing can be a contender.
“Abso-freaking-lutely,” she declared on being asked whether they could make the playoffs next year. “You see the fight we have within us! We’ve beaten teams at the top of the table so it shows that we actually have it within us. We just need to have that type of confidence and that bravery.” She lifts a hand to touch her chest. “That bravery consistently throughout the season. That goes from the staff to the players. It takes everybody. This is where we learn. It was Kim’s first season as well and he learned from this season as a coach how hard it is obviously to coach in this league. And so, hopefully, he grows, we grow, we all grow together and we just kind of keep it pushing.”
This has certainly been a season where the entire team has learned a whole lot. Probably more than anyone expected they needed to learn when the season started. McDonald seems confident that everyone from the staff to the players can continue to grow from their experiences and, with the season ending on the ascending high notes it did, fans should have confidence that they can, too.
For now, Racing fans and players can take delight in the pitch-perfect final moments of a challenging season. It was another hard-fought match that looked destined for yet another draw, but this time was different. This time they were able to hold strong and breakthrough instead of letting a small mistake or moment of inattention give their opponent the leg up. This time Jaelin Howell settled a poorly cleared ball and passed it on to Savannah DeMelo who glanced up and saw Jessica McDonald point to exactly where she wanted it. DeMelo passed it perfectly and McDonald toe-poked it past keeper A.D. Franch in the very last minute of stoppage time. This goal was the result of good positioning. This goal was capitalizing off a rebound – something Racing has failed to do consistently in the past two years. This goal was the result of two rookies and arguably the most accomplished vet on the team connecting and playing with effortless chemistry.
The memory of the crowd erupting and the McDonald and her teammates running to the bench with arms outstretched to celebrate with unabashed joy like they just won a playoff game is one that should be treasured. As she ran down the sideline, McDonald reached up to the Racing crest on her jersey, held it out, and pointed to it while Jaelin Howell and other players threw their arms up urging the crowd to celebrate even harder. Of course, everyone wishes this wasn’t the end and that the playoffs still lay ahead, but if the season had to end now, there’s no more perfect moment than this one.
In a way, this was a bookend to the pitch-perfect final moment of Racing’s first-ever match against the Orlando Pride when Brooke Hendrix scored an equalizer in the waning minutes of stoppage time. That moment signaled the resilience and unlimited potential this young team had, but along the way, the train got derailed a few times and slowed down their progress. It’s been taxing and tough to stomach at times, but maybe this can be a sign that the team is now back on track and ready to grow into the promise they’ve shown all along. This was not an easy year, but the players say they believe in this team. They say it constantly in interviews. Jess McDonald is saying it by pointing to the crest after scoring. DeMelo and Lauren Milliet (and surely others soon enough) are saying it by signing long extensions for the future. Racing has so much potential and if they can make some tweaks and adjustments and continue on the path they’ve laid out in these past four games, the sky’s the limit.
Together. 💜 pic.twitter.com/ocSgX2vkB5
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) October 2, 2022