Ready For Year Two
It’s only a couple of days into the preseason and already there are major changes afoot for Racing Louisville. Although almost everything from major roster changes to new coaches has already been announced, seeing the team take the field for their first practice on Wednesday hammered home just how different Racing will look in 2022.
As evidenced on the team roster tracker – found here on the Beautiful Game Network – there’s been nearly 50% turnover since the end of 2021. This fact wasn’t lost on returning players.
“Definitely a lot of new faces out here,” remarked Cece Kizer after practice. Still, in spite of the cold, rainy weather, she said the team is ready to start the new season. “There are always these first-day jitters and I think everyone is just thrilled to be on the ball again and getting together and we can’t wait for the rest of the week.”
The substantial turnover and subsequent loss of veteran leaders like Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, and Michelle Betos mean Racing has gotten even younger. With over a dozen rookies on the preseason roster, returning players like Kizer are finding themselves stepping into the role of team veteran despite only having a few years in the league.
“Yeah, it’s really weird being told that I’ve become one of the older players when you look at our roster and this is only my 4th year in the league,” said Kizer. “To be one of the older players, it kind of puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders. But we have other players like Lauren Milliet and myself who are just really excited to step into that leadership role. And we’re ready for year two.”
First Training ✅
We keep building. 📈 pic.twitter.com/LqZqqUblpB
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) February 3, 2022
Rookie and number two overall draft pick Jaelin Howell said the veterans have been nothing but welcoming to the new players. This positivity has already begun to breed the camaraderie necessary for the team to gel.
“We’re super grateful for that, you know, all the older players kind of taking us under the wing and I think that’s a huge part of it. I think that’s what’s going to make us great is us all helping each other out.”
Although Racing lost several key players in the offseason, they’ve made some major additions, too.
Amongst the rookies, Howell has major potential to be a ready-made starter off the bat. After winning two national championships with Florida State University, winning back-to-back MAC Hermann Trophies, and earning several caps on the full national team, she’s undoubtedly going to be one of the most-watched rookies in the league. The weight of these expectations don’t way too heavily on her, however, because according to Howell, “nobody is going to hold a higher standard than I do for myself.”
“On and off the field I’m just going to hold myself to the high standard that I always have,” said Howell. “I know that Coach Kim and the rest of team have high standards as well, so I think it’s going to push my game even further and that’s what I’m looking for… Get better each day and develop and, hopefully from there help the team out and we can start winning some games.”
The other biggest roster addition is veteran leader Jessica McDonald who Racing acquired from the North Carolina Courage. McDonald is one of the most accomplished players in the league, having won a World Cup in 2019 and two league championships with the Courage – including being named MVP of the championships match in 2018.
Kizer says the additions of Howell and McDonald are big for Racing.
“It’s great to have them here,” said Kizer. “Obviously Jess with all her experience and everything, she’s already been such a leader on this team with day one and day two. And now to bring in Jaelin and all the younger players. We have a lot of rookies and a lot of new faces among the team, but you know with her experience and all of her accolades and everything, we’re really excited to have her here.”
A Great Soccer Mind
New players aren’t the only new faces for Racing. Coach Kim Björkegren arrived in Louisville last week and was very pleased to have his first practice with the team.
“Amazing feeling to be back on the pitch,” said Björkegren, a native of Sweden. “I haven’t been on the pitch for a couple of months now. My last training I had, it was really hot in Cyprus. Now it’s the weather is maybe not perfect but still amazing to be back [for the] first training with the team. I’m happy to be here.”
Players also seemed happy with Björkegren and had only praise for him when speaking with reporters. Both Kizer and Howell said he was a nice, funny guy while praising his soccer knowledge and focus on technical skills during practice.
“We did a lot of technical stuff which I feel like is something that we definitely needed to bring in and just be clean on the ball,” said Kizer. “I think that’s something that we’re all really excited about.”
Howell agreed and said practice consisted of getting in a lot of touches and focusing on passing and technique. Said Howell, “Florida State was very attentive to detail, very technical, and it seems like that’s what coach Kim is going to do with us.”
Calling Björkegren “a very smart coach,” Howell continued, “He obviously has a great soccer mind, and that’s very important. I think it’s going to be important for the team and my development as well.”
That “great soccer mind” is already hard at work planning major changes in how Racing operates. When asked what needs to be worked on moving forward, Björkegren admitted it was pretty much everything.
“There’s a lot of things,” he said. “We are still in this first training. It will be a process to start with during 5-6 weeks of the preseason.
“There will be parts of the attacks that will change, the build-ups, how we’re going to defend. We [will] more or less almost change everything, I would say. So we have a lot of work to do, but the potential is really high in the team so I’m sure we’re going to see a team with a lot of energy.”
Björkegren also said he wanted to work on building up team confidence. The team was too tentative last season. He wants to make sure the players are confident enough to take some risks even if that leads to the occasional failure.
“I want them to enjoy the game to take some chances,” he said. And if chances lead to mistakes, that’s fine, too. Because that’s the only way players can truly grow. “Mistakes are a part of football and a part of your life. And if you don’t force yourself, you can never get better.”
With a new coach and so many new faces, Racing will have their work cut out for them this preseason. Still, players are happy, excited, and ready to get started.
Björkegren has promised more goals and more wins this season and now the team is one step closer to bringing that into reality. After finishing last season in ninth out of tenth place, Racing will have some work to do to climb the standings. A host of new players means Racing will again have to focus on building the relationships and chemistry that make teams successful. That means learning teammates’ preferences and styles of play and getting familiar with each other on and off the field. Howell, for one, is confident the team can make serious headway during the preseason.
“I think we have a great team and we’re going to show what we got this year.”
In the immediate future, fans should be looking forward to more signings. There are currently only 17 players on the Racing roster. That will certainly change soon as preseason continues and draftees are able to show their stuff.
Stay up-to-date with everything to do with Racing’s roster, including signings, contract terms, future draft slots, and more here on the Beautiful Game Network’s Racing 2022 Roster Tracker.
Here are some other highlights Racing fans should be aware of:
Emily Fox has been called up to play in the 2022 She Believes Cup which will take place February 17-23 in California and Texas. A very youthful U.S. National Team roster will be playing against the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and Iceland. Fox was a standout in the U.S. senior team’s last four matches against South Korea and Australia. She even won her first national team Woman of the Match accolades for her dominant performance against Australia in late November.
Despite attending a January national team camp with Fox, Jaelin Howell did not make the She Believes Cup roster for 2022. This isn’t a huge surprise considering she has yet to play any professional minutes. Racing fans will remember that Fox herself wasn’t called into the She Believes Cup in 2021 despite attending a training camp for the tournament. She only became a regular on the senior team after some development at the professional level. It’s likely Howell will follow the same trajectory.
When speaking of Howell at a pre-She Believes Cup press conference on Thursday, U.S. National Team head coach Vlatko Adonovski called her an “exciting player”. He also said he was following her and “looking forward to have [her] in one of the next camps.”
Racing fans will be able to watch all the U.S. matches in the She Believes Cup live on ABC and ESPN.
Collective Bargaining Agreement Reached
Big changes are happening in more places than just within Racing. On January 31, the NWSL Players Association announced that they had reached an agreement with the league Board of Governors and ratified the first collective bargaining agreement in league history. The Board of Governors ratified the same agreement the following day on the first day of preseason which narrowly averted a player strike.
The signing of this landmark contract grants NWSL players free agency for the first time, requires that teams provide a professional medical staff including a sports psychologist, while also providing substantial pay increases. The full agreement has not yet been released to the public, but the NWSL Players Association has released a summary in the below Twitter thread:
A statement from the Players Association: pic.twitter.com/7piQ0n9i0z
— NWSLPA (@nwsl_players) February 1, 2022
The W League Takes Off
Last month, Racing Louisville announced that their academy team will compete in the USL’s new W League this year in its inaugural season. The pre-professional team roster will include top academy players, college students, and other amateur athletes. Head coach Kincaid Schmidt said the W league “is on track to be an integral piece of the women’s professional development pathway in this country. For Racing to be one of the clubs involved from its inception affirms our commitment to develop players capable of playing at the highest levels of soccer.
“We have a strong division with terrific clubs, and it will certainly make for entertaining and tightly contested games. I can’t wait to begin our work on the field and to showcase our talent to the community.”
On Thursday, the full 12-game schedule for Racing’s W League team was announced. All home games will be played at the Lynn Family Vision and Sports Training Center off Edith Road and are free and open to the public. Concessions – including alcohol – will be available for purchase at the training facility during matches.
Free soccer! 👀
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) February 3, 2022