Racing Louisville drew NJ/NY Gotham FC 1-1 on Thursday night in the home finale for their inaugural season.
After going down a goal in the seventh minute, it seemed like Racing might end their home matches on a disappointing note. Instead, they rallied and held off the relentless Gotham attack for the remainder of the first half. Racing came out strong in the second half and equalized in the seventh minute off a Cece Kizer goal. The rest of the match was a nail-biter with both teams getting some good chances – especially a late shot from Cheyna Matthews that required a fingertip save from Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan. Tempers flared as Gotham became increasingly frustrated as their playoff hopes were dashed once again, but the score stayed level.
“I think it is a testament to our resilience,” said Kizer of the team’s ability to earn a draw after going behind early. “I think that is something that a lot of us have talked about in the locker room, and that we want to have that identity of being a resilient team and you come into Louisville here and it’s a tough place to play. It’s not ideal to concede early, but I think for all of us it’s: They get one and we can put one right back.”
This ability to “put one right back” is a recent development for Louisville. For the majority of the season, if Racing went down by a goal, that was that. Around September they began getting single goals back here and there even if they ended in a loss. And then, finally, in their most recent previous match against Orlando, Racing went down by one early and charged back to win 3-1. As a fan watching from the stands, it was like seeing a switch go off. Everything finally came together and clicked. Last night’s match against Gotham shows that wasn’t a fluke. Racing can concede goals and rally to not just avoid a shutout, but actually, pull in some points.
It’s often said that expansion teams should be measured in signs of progress and growth over a season instead of match results. Coming back to win or draw from behind is as sure a sign of progress as one can get. It’s a sign of growing confidence. An indication that the team is starting to believe that they can, in fact, win every game they’re in. Racing has always played hard and fought until the end of each match no matter what. Now they seem to be clearing that intangible hurdle that separates striving to win and actually believing a win is achievable.
In previous articles, I talked about how sometimes draws feel like wins and sometimes they feel like losses. The fact that Racing has come from behind to pull back points two games in a row makes this one undoubtedly feel like a win.
“I think what people are starting to see is the character,” said interim coach Mario Sanchez after the match. “Week in and week out I’ve continued to talk about the character of this team, and you know the last two games I think have exemplified what they’re about as human beings.
“To play teams that are fighting for the playoffs — to go a goal down and come back, it speaks volumes about them as people, about our players, about our culture that is being developed. Extremely proud of them and looking forward to Sunday to go at it again.”
We Go Again, One Last Time
Racing has one game left in their inaugural season and, in an odd twist of fate, it’s against Gotham. Both teams will go again for the last time on Sunday night in New Jersey. This is Gotham’s last chance to clinch a playoff spot. They need two points so a win is a must. A draw or loss means they’re out of luck.
Since losing their own shot at the playoffs, Racing has seemed to relish their role as spoilers. First, they ended the Orlando Pride’s chances and now they’ve at least delayed Gotham’s. It’ll be interesting to see how both teams come out on Sunday. Gotham will surely put forth their strongest starters, as they did on Thursday. Will the short turnaround time potentially weaken them?
Gotham’s biggest mistake this match was attacking too hard too early. They banked everything on securing a win early on – and, for a while, it seems like they might have earned it. But Racing clearly weathered the storm well enough to come back once some of Gotham’s energy had lagged.
On Sunday, Racing has the potential to add a couple more key pieces to their starting lineup. Emily Fox was rested on Thursday after playing a full 90 minutes with the national team on Tuesday. Freja Olofsson was also rested after playing in Europe with the Swedish U-23s. Savannah McCaskill was subbed in late on Thursday so she’ll be fresh and ready to go come Sunday. These three options give Racing the chance to put in some fresh players with a lot of talent against Gotham’s potentially more fatigued standard starters. All Racing needs is another draw to dash Gotham’s playoff chances and, based on Thursday night’s match, that seems very achievable.
The End of the Beginning
Thursday’s match was not Racing’s last game of the season, so I don’t want to get too hung up on farewells. They still have a game left to play and they can still achieve quite a bit with a win. Not only would they block Gotham from the playoffs, but they’d also definitively be the expansion team with the highest winning percentage in NWSL history. That’s a lot to fight for.
Still, the fact we won’t get to look forward to seeing these players at home next week or the week after that is surprisingly emotional. After all, as Michael Shaw points out in his eloquent blog post about this match, we might never see some of these players in person again. At least, not in lavender. Turnover is inevitable. We’ve seen this team – this very first Racing squad – in person for the very last time.
Like Shaw, I found myself a bit emotional when that realization hit. We’ve gotten so used to seeing these faces not just on the pitch, but as they walked around the entire parameter of the field after every single match. Win or lose, every player took time after every game to greet fans, sign autographs and take pictures, or just give a smile and wave to their supporters. And it always seemed genuine. The players were happy to see the fans and the fans were delighted to see them.
Connections like these matter. These are the moments that turn people from casual fans to diehard supporters. During one match this summer, I sat next to a mother and her teen-aged daughter who had driven all the way from Colombus together for the match. The daughter was disappointed because she’d meant to bring markers in the off-chance she could catch a player – any player – and get something signed. Don’t worry, I told them. Every player on the team walks around after each match signing things and greeting fans. They have their own sharpies, too. I pointed out a good place to wait for signatures and wished them luck. A couple of days later, I happened upon a comment on Instagram in the Racing Louisville tag that I realized was from the daughter. It said she’d met every player and gotten every signature and “IT MADE [HER] LIFE!!!!!” She loved Racing, that was never changing, and all she wanted was to go back and see more games again and again.
And the thing is, Racing lost that game. Pretty badly, in fact, but it didn’t matter at all. The experience in the stadium, meeting people, and, most of all, meeting the players was so incredible the scoreline was a moot point.
This is just one incident. Go stand with any group of fans getting their autographs signed and you’ll see 1,000 others. Like when Michelle Betos had a full discussion about the best brand of goalkeeper gloves with a very nervous young athlete who was going to play keeper for the first time. Or older fans who ask Yuki about her art and drumming and get full, friendly answers back. Players have talked at length about how grateful they are to have a community that supports them and every interaction they’ve had with supporters has shown they truly mean it.
So it hurts a bit to realize that we’ve seen this particular group, this groundbreaking, exciting, fun first squad for the last time. We’ll be able to enjoy countless years of future players who will charm us just as much, but no one else will ever be first.
There may be one more game left to play, but this match felt in many ways like the final bow. So it’s time to say, thank you, Racing, for everything. Not just for the time you spent on the pitch, but for the time you spent in the community despite Covid restrictions. The time you spent building something from the ground up and making it your own. For getting through the lows to send us off on a high note. You’ve set the foundation on which a phenomenal team, maybe even a dynasty, will be built. Even if some of you don’t come back with us next year, you’ve undoubtedly earned fans for life in Louisville. Thank you, Racing, for everything.