“We Can Only Go Up”
After beating the Orlando Pride last Friday, Racing Louisville headed west for their final road trip of the 2022 season. First, they visited Portland for a 3-0 loss on Wednesday and then rallied for a come-behind 3-1 win against Angel City on Sunday night.
After the Women’s Cup in mid-August, Racing seemed to be on an alarming backward slide with a 4-0 loss to Chicago and a 5-1 loss to North Carolina. It’s taken several games for the true shape of those games to become clear – was it a true regression or a painful but temporary pothole? Thankfully, it seems to be a temporary albeit deep pothole. Despite the shutout loss in Portland, both games taken together indicate a continued shift back into form for Racing that started with the Orlando win.
After the match against Angel City, Coach Kim Björkegren praised the players for being resilient despite a rough patch and said he was “really proud of the girls that they kept going.”
Rookie midfielder Jaelin Howell admitted that it’s been a tough few weeks for everyone. It’s the end of the season so the players are both physically and mentally tired, so pulling out a win against a sellout crowd in Los Angeles against a team competing for the playoffs was a big step for the young side.
“For us to come together and pull it out three to one,” Howell said, “it was huge and I think it says a lot about the character of this team.”
Howell credited veteran players Nadia Nadim, Jess McDonald, Gemma Bonner, and Lauren Milliet for helping to push the very young team through some tough growing pains.
“I think they’ve stepped up when times got tough and really got the new group together and taught us younger players some essential things so I’m grateful for them. And, you know, there’s a lot of great lessons learned this season as a young squad and I think it’s exciting because we can only go up and grow together and I’m super excited for the future. If we can keep playing like this and keep developing and stay on the right road then I think that there’s going to be a bright future.”
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) September 26, 2022
By The Numbers
The Portland Thorns game was truly a tale of two halves. In both halves, Portland unleashed a barrage of shots with 16 in the first half and 12 in the second half with 50% on target both times. Racing, on the other hand, could only muster seven total shots with only one on target. Unsurprisingly Racing keeper Katie Lund was forced to make nine saves on the night.
What’s most interesting about this game, however, is how well Racing played themselves back into the match during the first half. Multiple players were forced to make some desperate goal-line saves, but the game went into the half 0-0. Considering Racing has a long history of giving up early goals – especially to the Portland Thorns – blanking them for 45 minutes was a big step for the team. They also managed to hold fairly even possession with Portland barely edging Racing out with 53%.
The second half, of course, didn’t go the same way. Portland scored two goals within 90 seconds starting in the 47th minute. The third and final goal came less than 10 minutes later. Björkegren made some defensive adjustments and Racing was able to barely staunch the bleeding and come out with a 3-0 loss. Of course, this sacrificed any sort of attempt at possession and the Thorns ended up with a whopping 61%.
Racing did create a couple of chances via set pieces with one in each half. Unfortunately, the attempts by Emina Ekic and then Savannah DeMelo barely bounced off the crossbar. Across every stat, however, from player to the full team, Portland utterly dominated Racing.
— Taylor Vincent (@tayvincent6) September 23, 2022
Versus Los Angeles
Once again, it seemed Racing would repeat the same old mistakes. Both teams exchanged chances early on, but Angel City found the back of the net in the 14th minute in something of a fluke shot from Jun Eno that ricocheted off Savannah McCaskill’s midsection, onto the woodwork, and then rolled into the goal. Another early goal seemed like it would be the death knell for Racing. They had never as a franchise come from behind to win a match before – but they did on Sunday.
Racing never stopped attacking. Angel City may have taken one more shot than Racing in the first half, but Racing was far more accurate with 57% shooting accuracy to Angel City’s 25%. Racing equalized off a shot from Kirsten Davis in the 37th minute and then went ahead with an Alex Chidac penalty less than five minutes later. In the second half, Racing put the nail in the coffin with an Emina Ekic stunner in the 90th minute. As a result, Racing did two things they’d never done before this one game: they came from behind to win a game and scored two goals within five minutes. They also scored more than two goals for the first time all season and every goal scorer was 24 years or younger showing the youthful potential on the team may finally be maturing.
Racing held fairly even possession in the first half with 51%, but let Angel City have the significant majority in the second half by only holding 39%. Angel City took almost twice the number of shots (19 to 10), had better passing accuracy (71% to 66%), and held 55% of overall possession. Racing, on the other hand, attempted significantly more tackles (26 to 18) and won more tackles overall (17 to 13), had more interceptions (8 to 5) and that gritty defense and pressure was ultimately the difference maker.
Individually, Jaelin Howell had a banner night leading both teams in tackles (6), tackles won (5), and interceptions (3). Howell also attempted 24 duels and won 13 of them. She also notched an assist on Davis’ goal. Davis also had a great night and took the most shots of any Racing player (4) with half on target. She also generated the most xG (0.31) of any player besides Alex Chidiac whose xG was higher due to taking a penalty. Katie Lund made six saves on the night and is now one shy of the all-time single-season record in the NWSL.
A BOSS in the midfield. 💪
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) September 26, 2022
Ultimately, the loss against Portland wasn’t as bad as it could have been and the win against Angel City couldn’t have been much better. Compared to the brutal Chicago and North Carolina losses just a short time ago, this is significant progress for Racing. They’ve now won four total games with two of them coming in just this past week.
Last year, Racing finished ninth out of 1o. As a result of the win against Angel City, Racing has at least temporarily ascended to 10th out of 12. In 2021, Racing scored 21 goals and had 40 scored against them in 24 games for a goal differential of -19. For a while there it looked like Racing might do worse than they did last year, but Racing has now scored 22 with 35 against for a -13 goal differential. This isn’t a massive improvement, but considering that this season contains two fewer games than 2021, that’s still a positive gain with only a game left.
“Nothing to Lose”
The main thing these games showed is that Racing has retained or possibly rediscovered its resiliency after those earlier losses. They may have ultimately deflated against Portland, but Racing held out for a half in a tough away match and that’s a positive sign. On Sunday the Chicago Red Stars also had a 3-0 second half collapse against Portland (complete with two red cards) in a must-win game, which should put Racing’s loss into a bit more perspective. Portland is a very tough team to beat or even hold off. They have the deepest bench of any team in the league. They’re just simply the better team and it’ll take some development and additional maturity for Racing to begin to ascend to their level.
The fact that Racing came back from that loss to beat Angel City in a must-win game for Los Angeles, speaks volumes about the team’s potential. They didn’t just win, they came from behind and then scored three unanswered goals. Players said they discussed their expectations for the match ahead of time and decided that the best thing they could do was play for themselves and put everything else behind them.
“In the locker room before we walked out there, it was, ‘Guys, we have nothing to lose,’” Emina Ekic said. “’Let’s play for each other, play free and not have any fear and have fun.’ That showed tonight.”
The Angel City match should be a sign of what Racing looks like once they settle and learn to play more freely. By relaxing and only focusing on the game before them, they connected better, they rebounded successfully, and they showed the depth of talent they have on the team. Hopefully, this is a glimpse of what next season might look like with a more settled and experienced lineup.
Even when discussing it regularly, it’s sometimes hard to keep in perspective just how young this team is. A huge reminder was the fact that all goal scorers against Angel City were under 24. When you add in the assists, all five players were under 25. As Racing’s social media accounts cheekily pointed out, this is so young that they can’t even rent a car in many states.
Can't rent a car in some states, but they drove us to victory on Sunday. 🏎 pic.twitter.com/5B0Q7zKZkZ
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) September 27, 2022
These five players make up nearly half the starting lineup. Lauren Milliet and Katie Lund are also only 25 which makes over half the starting lineup that young. That means the team is leaning exceptionally hard on a very young squad to carry this entire team. Clearly, they’ve proven they have the talent. Now Racing fans – myself included- need to remind ourselves to have more patience with a team that’s building to the future.
The big thing that happened during this trip that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that Nadia Nadim tore her ACL in her left leg during the first half of the Portland match. It happened only a year and a week past when she tore her ACL in her right knee last year. This is heartbreaking in multiple ways, but it also could have also been disastrous. Nadim is the season’s top goal scorer and she was just one goal away from breaking Racing’s single-season record. The fact she didn’t get the chance to break this record is very sad, but what isn’t sad is the fact that Racing figured out how to score three times without her.
It’s also worth noting that Racing was missing Wang Shuang who was absolutely electric against Orlando. Wang was given an excused absence to return to China and will miss the last few games of the season. The fact Racing was able to pull out a dominant win while missing two key pieces is really excellent for the squad and will hopefully give them a boost going into their last game of the season against Kansas City.
All in all, this has been a roller coaster end of the season. In the last five matches alone fans have arguably seen both Racing’s lowest point in franchise history and their greatest win in franchise history. That’s a lot to digest. And it’s certainly a very good thing that this great win came after the huge loss. This may seem like a trite and obvious point to make, but sometimes the obvious still needs to be emphasized.
Racing still has work to do, of course. The defense is still too scattered and not playing cohesively. And how could they when they’ve been shaken up like a snow globe all season? It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that everything went a bit smoother with Lauren Milliet playing in the midfield and an actual defender playing as the outer back. Milliet did an exceptional job getting into the box against Angel City and even drew the foul that earned the penalty. Hopefully, we can see her finally settle into a spot or at least a line more permanently.
Racing has one last game left against Kansas City. Although Kansas City has clinched a playoff spot, they’ll be playing for a home playoff match, so that is a tangible goal to work towards. Hopefully, Racing can come out and meet them with the same unencumbered joy they played with against Los Angeles. A win would allow Racing to end the season with more points than they did last season despite playing two fewer games and that would be nice, but, ultimately, the most important thing is that they continue to play for each other. This season hasn’t gone how anyone had hoped, but if they can end it on a high note that speaks to the future potential this team has, that’s about as good a win as you can get.