Racing Louisville squanders another early lead in 2-2 draw to Portland Thorns

Yet Another Heartbreaker

After Racing Louisville’s 2-2 draw against the Portland Thorns on Saturday night, defender Abby Erceg didn’t mince words.

“We don’t know how to win. I think it’s becoming quite obvious at the moment. It’s frustrating for the girls, we’re not losing, but drawing all these games won’t win you anything.”

Although Racing is still without a loss in their first three matches, this game against Portland certainly felt like one. It started brightly enough with Uchenna Kanu getting on the board not once, but twice in the first six minutes. This feat not only notched Racing their first-ever goals in Providence Park, it earned Kanu the quickest brace from kickoff in National Women’s Soccer League history.

Louisville’s hot start quickly cooled, however. Although they smothered Portland successfully in the first half, they gave up a goal early in the 52nd minute of the second to bring the Thorns back into the game. Then after scrambling to hold the lead, a heartbreaker of an equalizer was given up in the ninth of 10 minutes of stoppage time. A serious injury to centerback Elli Pikkujämsä in the 72nd minute certainly didn’t help Racing, but it can hardly be blamed for the loss of the lead.

This heartbreak is all too familiar for Racing Louisville players and fans. Giving up two-goal leads happened again and again and again last season and has now happened twice in two out of three matches in 2024. Hence, Erceg’s comments on not knowing how to win. How is it that Racing can fail so consistently in holding onto leads? The offense is clearly clicking, so is it the defense? Is it the many missing players? Are bad habits and old mindsets just this hard to break? Here’s a breakdown of everything in the match against the Thorns.

By the Numbers

Racing Louisville and Portland ultimately had fairly even xG with Racing earning 1.35 and Portland 1.55. The Thorns drastically outshot Racing with 27 shots to Racing’s nine, but Portland only managed seven out of those 27 on target while Racing had four out of nine on-frame.

For the third game in a row, Louisville found themselves on the wrong end of the possession battle. This was their worst showing with only 39%. This match also featured their worst passing accuracy with only 70.2%. Interestingly, Racing also won zero corners in the whole match to Portland’s seven.

In terms of individual performances, this was the Uchenna Kanu Show all the way. In addition to her two goals, she won 7 out of 10 duels and won possession a team-high 13 times. She also won both her tackles and notched three interceptions showing just how well she played on both sides of the ball. Taylor Flint also seems to be growing into her role in the midfield more and more now that she’s moved high up the pitch. She led the team in touches (66) and passes (41) and won 12 out of 14 duels. She also won three out of three aerial duels (second only to Jaelin Howell who won four out of four) and won possession back 11 times. Speaking of Howell, she also won seven duels, won possession five times, and had five clearances.

In less good news, Reilyn Turner only had 18 touches in 71 minutes. This is not completely on her at all because she was left very isolated as the center forward while the rest of the team was stuck back playing defensively out of possession. Still, compared to the Houston Dash match, this is a stark difference and not a good one.

Key Takeaways

Pinned Back Again

If there’s anything Racing should know by now it’s that you can’t win on the back foot. It’s impossible to chase the ball and defend for 70-plus minutes every time you go up early in a match. If you let the opponent take control of the game and pepper you relentlessly, they’re almost certainly going to break through eventually.

In both their matches this season that started as two-goal leads and turned into 2-2 draws, their average positions tell a pretty stark story, as seen in the image below.

Passing matrixes showing average positions for Racing Louisville vs. Orlando Pride (March 13, 2024) and Racing Louisville vs. Portland Thorns (March 30, 2024) / Image courtesy StatsPerform

On the left, is the passing matrix from the Orlando Pride match. On the right is the one from Portland. The key point to note in both these charts is that only a single player spent the majority of their time outside of Racing’s half. A quick look at the possession numbers shows what happened. Racing simply did not have control of the ball and spent far too much time pinned back in their own half desperately trying to cling to the lead.

Mindset Reset

Why does this keep happening? Erceg said the team doesn’t know how to win and that’s true. They definitely need to work on keeping possession and controlling games, but it’s more than that. This team doesn’t seem to believe that they can win from these positions. If they go up too early, they fall into bad habits and get bombarded. This leads to preventable mistakes and the loss of a lead.

The team is never going to win if they don’t truly believe it. They’re also not going to win if they try too hard to hold onto a lead instead of actually winning a game. If that sounds contradictory, it’s not. There’s a subtle difference between clinging desperately to something and taking charge. Racing defaults into clinging desperately when they need to learn to take charge. Until they learn how to do this, they’ll never stop drawing.

In many ways, it would probably be better for Racing to start losing games. That might give them the fire they need to make the changes they need to pull out wins. As it stands, it’s far too easy to say, ‘We’re so close!’ when they’re clearly quite a distance away from figuring it out. It’s too easy to look at this game and say, ‘We scored our first goals in Portland!’ or ‘We earned our first point in Portland!’ and be content with that. This isn’t the time for contentment or saying it’ll be fine with a few small changes. Players and coaches can acknowledge these small achievements and still say this isn’t good enough. Complacency is the enemy of progress and Racing can’t be complacent with these small gains.

Kanu celebrates her goal in Portland / Image courtesy the NWSL

Kanu in Control

The good news for Racing is that mentalities can not only change, they can change dramatically.

Last year, Uchenna Kanu was hailed as a major signing for Racing. She was lauded as the answer to many of the team’s offensive issues after having a standout season with Tigres in Liga MX. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a great year in the NWSL and failed to score a single goal in the entirety of the regular season and only a single goal in the Challenge Cup. As a result, this player that Racing fans had pinned their hopes on found herself mostly on the bench.

It’s clear Kanu lost her confidence and that can be an extremely hard thing to come back from without changing teams or even leagues. And yet, in 2024, Kanu has been entirely in control and is living up to everything Racing fans hoped from her last season. Three games in, she already has three goals and as the stats above show, she’s also putting in excellent defensive shifts as well and looking like one of Racing’s best all-around players this season.

When asked how this turnaround happened, Kanu said that playing in her favorite position helps. “I’ve always played from the left wing position the majority of my career, and I think just doing that this year has really helped me a lot to regain my confidence. And of course, the tactics that [head coach Bev Yanez] and  [assistant coach Carmelina Moscato] and the rest of the crew have introduced to us. It’s really fantastic. I like it. And I’m just playing and enjoying myself.”

Just playing and enjoying herself is probably the biggest key. Yes, tactics help, but the fact that Kanu now has the confidence to be herself and play the way she feels most comfortable is what is ultimately leading to her success. She’s not overthinking. She’s not in her head. She’s just playing and absolutely killing it. This is what Racing is failing to do collectively. They play freely and dynamically and then as soon as they get too far ahead they start constricting in on themselves. Even if they put in solid defensive shifts for forty or fifty minutes, it starts wearing on them and mistakes start happening and they start bending under the pressure from the opponent.

Racing needs to find that joy and hold onto it. They also need to do the work that it takes to shift their collective mindset into believing they can win these matches. Last year, NJ/NY Gotham went all the way to the championship after ending the previous season in last place. Defender Ali Krieger said that it was in large part because the team bought into the fact that they were going from worst to first and no one was going to take that from them. Racing has enough talent that if they can just achieve a similar buy-in, they can also achieve great things. They jus thave to believe they can.

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.