Another Racing Louisville draw, but coach and players see progress against San Diego Wave

Showing Progress

Some draws feel like losses and some feel like wins. Despite drawing the first four games of the 2024 season, Racing Louisville has certainly the close brush of defeat in their matches against the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride. In both cases, they went up by two early only to squander their leads and give up late heartbreaking equalizers.

While they have yet to earn a draw that feels like a real win in 2024, they arguably came the closest in Saturday’s 0-0 match against last year’s shield winners, the San Diego Wave. Racing broke their trend of having a good first half and not adjusting well in the second and instead did a solid job of controlling the game and keeping the Wave on their back foot through much of the final 45 minutes. They also created better chances and were the more dangerous team. For these reasons, head coach Bev Yanez said she sees progress in her side’s performance against the Wave.

“I know a lot of people will look at the scoreline and say, ‘Another tie’”, Yanez said. “We’re still undefeated in this league, and we’re showing the progress of our group. And I’m incredibly proud of it.”

Midfielder and captain Jaelin Howell said that draws are never the result the team sets out for, but she agrees with Yanez that progress is evident in Racing’s performance.

“You can see the growth. San Diego is a very good team. That’s a team that made it very far in the playoffs [last season], and I thought we did very well and especially the second half. I thought we dominated the game in the second half. Honestly, I thought we had more chances. That’s where I think it’s just going to take one (goal), one of those games to win and let the goals fall and finish out a game. And then I think from there on, we’re just going to be flying.”

By the Numbers

Howell is right. Racing did have more chances in the second half — by a lot. In the first half, Louisville could only manage two shots with none on frame for a measly 0.07 xG. Comparatively, the Wave had seven shots and two on target with an xG of 0.52 in the first 45 minutes. In the second half, Racing upped their game dramatically by getting 10 shots with four on frame for an xG of 1.11 while the Wave wavered a bit with seven shots and none on target for an xG of 0.38. The match ended with Racing having 1.19 xG to San Diego’s 0.9.

Once again, Louisville struggled to keep possession and ended the match with 44% overall. The good news is they did improve as the game progressed. In the first half, they had a weak 41%. In the second half, they improved to 46%. While it’s still not ideal that a team that claims to want to be possession-based isn’t able to hold majority possession during a half, this is a reversal in the trend of them weakening towards the end of matches and weathering an offensive barrage from their opponents.

Louisville did, in fact, find the back of the net courtesy of a header from Taylor Flint, but Kayla Fischer was called offsides and the goal was called back. It was a frustrating call, but the correct one.

Racing Louisville’s pass matrix and average position against the San Diego Wave, April 14, 2024 (Image courtesy Stats Perform)

In last week’s recap, one thing I harped on was how pressed back in their own half Racing remained against both Portland and Orlando. As seen in the image above, Louisville’s entire forward line plus Savannah DeMelo (7) managed to stay above the midfield line on average with midfielders Howell (6) and Taylor Flint (26) staying right on it. This is significantly better positioning. The biggest issue with the above graph is that Reilyn Turner (66) was left completely isolated up top and Elexa Bahr (23) was almost completely isolated except for limited connections with Howell. Carson Pickett (16) seems to have a good connection with Uchenna Kanu (29) above her and DeMelo. Lauren Milliet (2) and Bahr seem to need to work on their on-field connection.

Key Takeaways

All Tied Up

The statistics show that Yanez and Howell are correct: Racing did have a better second half and that is a sign of progress. It’s also heartening that Racing was able to hold their own against last season’s shield winners and come out looking the better side (even if San Diego were missing key centerback Naomi Girma).

The bottom line is, the last time these teams met, Abby Erceg and Howell both said Racing was tactically outmatched and outplayed. That didn’t happen this time. For a team with a first-year coach and good deal of new players, that’s great for Louisville.

However, draws still aren’t good enough even with progress. Eventually, progress is going to need to yield three points or Racing is going to tie themselves out of a playoff chance. It’s still early, but there are only so many ‘good’ games’ a team can have and still drop points. Of course, no one knows this more than Racing’s players. The fact they came back from an extremely painful tie against Portland to play this well against the Wave shows their resilience. This match also shows they’re willing to fight and learn through a second half to earn a win. Now they just need to be better about finding their attackers and finishing their chances to put these games away.

Flint’s Instant Impact

After joining Racing in the off-season from the San Diego Wave, Flint has settled into the midfield in spectacular fashion. Heading into Saturday’s match, she was first in the league in duels won and in interceptions, second in tackles, and third in aerial duels won.

She didn’t slow down against her former club at all when she won 12 duels against the Wave marking her 24th match with 10 or more duels won. This is more than any other player in the National Women’s Soccer League since she joined the league in 2021.

Flint’s contribution is even more impressive considering the turnover that has happened in midfield in just four short games. Howell was out for the opening match, DeMelo missed two games due to injury, and Ary Borges just finally made her debut as a substitute after twisting her ankle during the CONCACAF Gold Cup competition last month.

The relationship between Howell and Flint in particular is one to keep an eye on. The two have already developed a strong rapport and make Racing’s midfield a hard line to break through. With both DeMelo and Borges back, it’s possible Racing might finally be able to build the connections they’ve been hoping for across their attacking and defending midfielders. DeMelo had a bit of a slow start on her return to the pitch but warmed up as the game went on. Borges, on the other hand, came in red hot and created some of Racing’s best chances of the night. As this group begins to settle in together, they could end up being one of if not the best midfield line in the league.

Growing Numbers?

Despite being only two home games into the season, there are reasons for Louisville to be positive about trends in attendance.

In the first two home games of 2024, they’ve had announced attendances of 6,123 and 6,819 for an average of 6,471. This is up from 2023 which started with 4,861 and 6,185 for an average of 5,523. This may be an extremely small sample size, but Racing is tracking ahead of their 6,048 season average in 2022 and their 5,999 average in 2023. They’re just a hair below the 6,610 average of 2021. With next week’s match against Utah tied into Kentucky Derby festivities and taking place during Thunder Over Louisville, there’s a strong possibility they might top that 2021 average in their first three home games.

Considering March and April are historically the months with the worst attendance, this is a positive trend for Racing. These might not be Los Angeles or San Diego numbers, but they’re evidence of growth for the first time since the first season. Whether or not Louisville can sustain these numbers, of course, needs to still be seen. San Diego always brings a crowd thanks to Alex Morgan and the Thunder tie-in is a special event that isn’t an ordinary draw. Until a few more standalone games take place, the real state of Racing’s attendance numbers might not be seen. Even so, with this foundation, it’s not hard to believe that a couple of solid wins could keep these numbers trending upwards.

Racing’s players certainly noticed the increased attendance with Howell calling the crowd fantastic after the Wave match.

“You talk about playing at home. You talk about us going for the game. You talk about that urgency with composure in these moments and you start to feel the crowd. We want the crowd’s energy in those moments. When you feel the screaming and the cheering. the excitement around the game, it makes you want to pick it up and go for it. It encourages our group massively. And so I was very, very, very impressed by the crowd tonight. And they were obviously very into the game. So, I’m very grateful for them.”

Looking Ahead

Next up, Racing will play the Utah Royals for the first time since their re-joining the league in 2024. The Royals, captained by former Racing fan favorite Paige Monaghan, have been something of a mixed bag. They beat the current number one team, the North Carolina Courage, in a shocking match last month, but haven’t won a game since.

While no matches are ever truly winnable in a league with as much parity as the NWSL, this is a match that should be winnable for Racing. So far in 2024, Racing is out-shooting (38 to 31) and outscoring (4 to 3) the Royals by a somewhat slim margin. Louisville should be looking to take advantage of Utah’s defensive weaknesses. Utah has conceded six goals to Racing’s four and not kept a clean sheet all season while Racing has earned two.

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on She-Plays.com. Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.