Last Monday afternoon, Racing Louisville posted a snippet of head coach Christy Holly’s most recent post-match interview on Twitter. Blazoned atop the tweet was the quote “We know there is a lot more to come.”
Just about 30 hours later, at 9:50 PM on Tuesday night, the team posted another message. This brief, three-sentence statement announced that Christy Holly’s contract with Racing Louisville had been terminated for cause. No further information was given beyond clarifying that Mario Sanchez, head of the club’s academy, would be acting as interim coach until a permanent hire could be made.
A statement from the club: pic.twitter.com/t9hoFpCBvt
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) September 1, 2021
On Thursday afternoon, James O’Connor, Executive Vice President of Development for Soccer Holdings, spoke to the press about the firing. While he claimed he could not provide many details, he did say the termination was not related to performance.
“No coach if he’s fired for cause or terminated for cause is ever going to be related to what happens on the field,” said O’Connor.
Shortly after Holly was fired, Eric Crawford at WDRB reported that sources close to the team alleged that Holly promoted a toxic environment in addition to other potential improprieties. O’Connor denied the firing was related to ongoing issues and saying instead that “it happened pretty quickly.”
“It’s really disappointing,” said O’Connor, “but it was a situation where we had to act swiftly and I’m proud of how the club have dealt with this matter.”
Racing’s captain Michelle Betos acknowledged that this wasn’t an easy situation for anyone, but says the players remain as driven and confident as ever. As a veteran player leading a very young team of players, she’s only been impressed by how they’ve responded.
“It’s a really motivated group,” said Betos on Thursday. “They have great heads on their shoulders. And above all, we really believe in having each other’s backs and sticking together. So it prepares you for the hard parts. When you have a good group, when you have a good core, you work together, and you really commit to each other, that shines in adversity and that’s what this is.”
Players found out about the firing at a team meeting called at 9:15 PM on Tuesday. This was only about half an hour before the official announcement. They were not told the full reasons for the termination, but Betos claims that’s not of any real concern to the team.
“It’s not the why, it’s the what. What do we do now? We can’t harp on what happened, we can’t harp on thinking about that. Our whole focus is on how do we move forward and that’s where our energy is going.”
Both O’Connor and Betos insist that in spite of everything, the club’s culture remains strong.
“We’re really proud of our culture here,” said O’Connor .”We spent a lot of time building a great culture. We have a cultural model that we’ve run from the very beginning that goes through every facet of this football club. That’s something we take extremely seriously.”
When asked if the players’ belief in the club and its culture remains intact, Betos’ was emphatic.
“Absolutely. It hasn’t wavered. And if anything, I think you’ve seen how strong it is.”
What It’s About
Although they’ve only had a couple of practices together, Betos said the team was happy with Sanchez as interim coach. The fact players already knew him from his work with the academy has helped the transition, as has his willingness to have conversations and answer any questions the players have.
“Honestly, he’s done a good job,” said Betos. “He’s actually been a pretty natural transition to give him all the credit. He has James’ backing which is helpful for us because we all believe in James.”
Sanchez had nothing but compliments to return to the players, calling them first-class professionals and praising their commitment to the team.
“They’re highly motivated. They’re phenomenal to work with,” said Sanchez of his first impressions. “That’s what’s awesome about them. It’s tough anytime there’s change and whatever circumstances, it’s tough. But they’re so highly motivated to do well, to represent this club. You learn real fast how proud they are to be here and to play for this club and this city. You learn that right away. There’s absolute pride in what they’re doing. I keep going back to how welcoming they’ve been.”
Sanchez joined Soccer Holdings in 2019 to run the youth program after over twenty years coaching collegiate men’s soccer. This includes a stint with the University of Louisville from 2010-15 during some of their most successful seasons. While his time with Soccer Holdings has primarily been focused on the youth academies, this isn’t the first time he’s stepped up to help coach one of the first teams. After Lou City separated from coach John Hackworth earlier in the year, Sanchez stepped up to help interim coach Danny Cruz as an assistant. Taking on these additional roles doesn’t seem to phase Sanchez. He claims he’s just happy to assist wherever he’s needed.
“I love this club,” said Sanchez. “I know it sounds cliché, corny, but I really love this club. And so for me it’s what does the club need from me to help out? I’m not concerned with what happens after this. All I want is for these ladies to have a good experience, a good opportunity to get some results and continue to improve. That’s what it’s about.”
Sanchez says his priority is making sure the players have the support they need to perform at the highest level. While his familiarity with the team leaves him feeling prepared for this moment, he’s not focused on himself. It’s all about the players and getting to know them as individuals.
“Anyone who knows me knows I love people – to get to know people and know what they’re about. That’s the root of it, right? Who are they as people?
“The soccer – when I say that’s easy, those are conversations that we’re having all the time. Most importantly it’s that I get know them as people. That’s my priority right now.”
When asked if Sanchez would be in the running for the permanent job, O’Connor said that it was still too early to know. He would only confirm that Sanchez would lead the team through the end of the season.
“Honestly, it’s been the fastest moving couple of days that we’ve had here,” said O’Connor. “I don’t think anyone has looked at long term. I think for us it’s very much been just a matter of what do the players need, what as an organization do we need, and how can we get everyone supported, and get everyone doing what they need to do for Saturday’s game.”
It’s understandable that everyone is ready to move on and look to the future. The players still have nine games left and need to be focused on the task at hand. Still, it’s imperative that club leadership take a hard look at their hiring practices to prevent history from repeating. Because, quite frankly, Holly should have probably never been hired in the first place.
Holly’s only other head coaching stint also came to an abrupt end under uncertain circumstances. In 2017, he stepped down from Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) several months before the season ended. While the press release stated that Holly left the organization on good terms and his own comments implied it was his decision, contemporary reports suggested otherwise. The Equalizer quoted Sky Blue’s then-general manager as saying that his departure was, in fact, “a management decision” and not Holly’s own. They also reported that Holly “had lost the respect of Sky Blue players and coaches” prior to his departure. While much of the tension in 2017 culminated from his romantic relationship with a player, the fact that players described the club prior to his departure as “a tense environment that undid much of the good vibes” built over previous years is infuriatingly close to what’s being rumored about his departure from Racing.
Even if there was a specific incident instead of a pattern of bad behavior, it’s not a stretch to say Holly’s red flags should have given leadership pause. The club has said his considerable experience as a coach at both the club and international level plus his history as a scout for the United States Women’s National Team made him a highly desirable candidate. While it’s true this seems impressive on paper, does experience trump the risk of creating a toxic and unhealthy environment for players? Especially when you claim to be a club that provides the best environment, accommodations, and facilities for your players? It should be clear now the answer is no.
The club should be praised for dealing with this issue swiftly and not downplaying it. Still, just because Holly was fired doesn’t mean this is a done deal. O’Connor says he’s proud of how the club has dealt with the situation, but it’s not acceptable to act as if this incident happened in a vacuum instead of being part of a systemic issue within the league.
The unfortunate reality of the NWSL and women’s soccer is that coaches with credible accusations of misconduct keep getting hired. Look at Farid Benstiti. Look at Richie Burke. Look at Craig Harrington. And now, look at Christy Holly. Past accusations are ignored and experience is touted as making them the best candidates for the job. And all too often, they are allowed to slip out of bad situations with zero transparency as to what actually happened. Then, they get picked up somewhere else and the cycle continues.
And, if it isn’t obvious, all of these coaches are male. In a league that claims to uplift and empower female athletes, former players with the appropriate licenses only rarely get hired into positions of power. Of course, this is not to imply that all female coaches are infallible. Female coaches can also be as problematic as any male coach. The issue is that men with alarming accusations that have cost them previous jobs keep getting second and even third chances while women rarely get even one.
If this is ever going to change, new candidates with diverse backgrounds need to be considered more seriously by teams. Even if they don’t have as much coaching experience, former players like Becca Moros, Amy LePeilbet, and Nikki Washington know teams and players in this league far more intimately than Benstiti or Burke or Harrington did before they were hired. And even if an inexperienced coach flops, isn’t it preferable to separate over bad results instead of firing someone in the middle of the season for misconduct?
Racing Louisville’s leadership have a chance to prove they’ve learned from this mistake with their next hire. Sanchez seems to have the respect of the players, so he takes away the need for the club to rush through this process and risk making another, possibly even worse mistake. Diverse candidates from a variety of different backgrounds and experience levels should be considered. Current players should also have a say in who becomes their new coach. No one will be more affected by this hiring than them, so they need to have a voice in this process.
After all, it is the players who are the heart of the team. The club would be nothing without them. It’s their skill and grit and passion on the field that fans are paying to see. They’re the ones who are transforming casual fans into diehard supporters every game. They’re the ones who are selling the jerseys and merchandise and keeping fans engaged. It’s heartening to hear Betos say the players are so far pleased with Sanchez and even better to hear that they all remain committed to the city and the club. Now Soccer Holdings needs to honor that commitment by breaking the cycle of hiring questionable coaches by providing the team with the kind of leader they deserve.