Racing Louisville’s First Scrimmage Hints at Big Things to Come

Racing Louisville played their first intrasquad scrimmage of 2022 Friday morning. As a result, new additions such as Jessica McDonald, Kirsten Davis, and Savannah DeMelo got a chance to clock their first minutes in lavender. Unsigned invitees and draftees also got a chance to show what they could bring to the team.

Although Coach Kim Björkegren said the match was more about fitness and conditioning than gameplay, there were a number of developments that point towards good things to come for Racing’s upcoming season.

A Dynamic Duo

It is undeniable that Jess McDonald and Ebony Salmon are a dynamic duo in the making. Despite never playing together competitively prior to this scrimmage, a connection is clearly brewing between the two forwards. They read each other’s movements well and maintained some solid give-and-go play throughout the match.

Salmon told reporters after the match that she knew from playing against McDonald last season that she was a terrific player.

“She’s got a lot of experience, which I think is gonna really help us as a team and to play alongside her in the forward line,” said Salmon.I think it’s only gonna make me a better player and hopefully I can assist her and get her some goals as well as getting myself some goals.”

They certainly seem to be off to a good start in that respect as they also both contributed massively to the score sheet leading their side to a 4-1 victory. In the first half, a shot from Salmon rebounded off the crossbar, but McDonald was well-positioned to collect it and send it in for the first goal. In the second half, they scored a second after Salmon sent in a cross from McDonald. Next, a bad pass was picked off by McDonald who chipped it in for a third, and, finally, Taylor Malham scored off a pass from McDonald.

After the scrimmage, Coach Björkegren said he was pleased with the duo’s effectiveness. In particular, he praised their counterattacks calling their performance “very quality.”

Ebony Salmon is all smiles after the scrimmage / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos

Leadership Presence

In addition to her excellent play, McDonald clearly showed what a strong leader she can be. Back in December, McDonald said she wanted to bring “a bit of spark” to Racing and she certainly seems to be doing just that. During the match, she never stopped guiding and encouraging her younger teammates – even while the other side held possession. At halftime, she broke out the practice cones to demonstrate tactical advice.

With both of last years’ captains moving on to other clubs, who would step up to fill the leadership vacuum was a real concern for Racing. Gemma Bonner has proven herself to be an important leader on the backline. The defense became noticeably more organized once she joined the team last June. She also captained Liverpool to back-to-back league championships in 2013 and 2014, so she has some real bona fides.

As valuable as Bonner has been, Racing has been missing that same presence upfront. Luckily, McDonald looks like she can be both the playmaker and leader the team needs to get to the next level. Obviously, McDonald is an exceptional player. She’s won the World Cup and championships at every level from college to club. Even so, it’s no exaggeration to say she was even more impressive up-close and in-person. She’s the type of player who isn’t just great on her own, she makes everyone else around her better, too. Even this early in the preseason it’s evident that McDonald could very well be the most impactful and important player on Racing’s roster all season.

Jessica McDonald takes on Lauren Milliet during Racing’s intrasquad scrimmage / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos

The Kids Are Alright, Pt. 1

In addition to McDonald and Salmon, a number of rookies also left their mark. Kirsten Davis and Parker Goins both put in a solid performance. Davis had several good looks and assisted Emina Ekic on her side’s lone goal. Defenders Emily Smith and Syndey Cummings also played well. Savannah DeMelo looked strong in the midfield and took a shot that forced keeper Katie Lund into a diving save. And as mentioned above, Taylor Malham scored the final goal of the match in stoppage time. Of the aforementioned players, only Davis and DeMelo have been signed. However, the others certainly put in a good argument for their inclusion on the team.

After the match, DeMelo said the biggest challenge in playing at the professional level was adjusting to the speed of play. At the collegiate level, she said she was able to get by with an extra touch on the ball before deciding where she would pass or push forward. She doesn’t have that luxury now.

I learned that after the first practice,” said DeMelo. “Now before I get the ball, I need to know where I’m going to go with the ball. So I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. The pace is just at another level, but it’s fun getting there.” 

Savannah DeMelo during warmups / Image courtesy Connor Cunningham

The Kids Are Alright, Pt. 2

There was some definite hope that Friday would be the first time Jaelin Howell would play in a professional scrimmage. Unfortunately, that will have to wait. Fortunately, however, it’s for a good reason.

On Friday afternoon, the U.S. National Team announced that Howell had been called up to the She Believes Cup. As a result, she is already in San Diego along with Emily Fox ahead of the tournament. SheBelieves will run until the end of February meaning both will only join Racing again in March. Although they may miss a few scrimmages, the experience they’ll both receive in the national team environment will surely enhance their development.

If Bonner has led from the back and McDonald is showing she will lead from the front, there is hope that Howell can be one of the missing pieces in the midfield. At Florida State University, Howell was integral to dictating game tempo and controlling possession. This is something Racing struggled with greatly last season. If Howell can enter the professional ranks as quickly and seamlessly as Fox did last year, Racing will have shored up some of their biggest deficiencies in a major way.

In the meantime, Racing fans can cheer on Fox and Howell as they take on Iceland, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand February 17-23. The United States matches will air on ESPN, ABC, and ESPN 2 respectively.

The Long Road to Recovery

One of the most welcome sights of the entire scrimmage was the return of Addisyn Merrick. Although Merrick was one of the most promising players gained during last season’s expansion draft, she was waylaid by injury and missed nearly the entire season. On Friday, she looked sharp and quick and seemed to have lost none of the skills that made her such a dynamic player.

Merrick is an especially valuable defender because she plays the center and right back positions equally as well. If Racing still struggles in one area, it’s the lack of depth on the defensive line. So having Merrick able to fill in at the point of greatest need will be invaluable. When asked where he would prefer to play her, Björkegren smiled and said “I have no idea.”

He explained that they would cross that bridge when they get to it but praised her for her versatility and said she looked great during the scrimmage.

When asked about Nadia Nadim’s progress after an ACL tear last season, Björkegren had some positive news. He said she’d be joining the team in the next couple of weeks and would complete her rehab in Louisville. A normal player would likely be back in early summer, but Björkegren admitted with a laugh that “she’s not the normal player so it will not surprise me if she is going to be ready earlier than June for sure.”

In less cheery news, draftee Charmé Morgan had to watch for the sidelines. Björkegren said she had an injury they were still identifying and that she would be visiting with a specialist that day. Hopefully, this setback won’t be serious and Morgan can rejoin the team as soon as possible.

Addisyn Merrick / Image courtesy Connor Cunningham

New Coach, New Tactics

All in all, this new edition of Racing Louisville looked impressive. Players communicated well on the pitch and chemistry is already developing across multiple fronts. And this was without major players Emily Fox, Jaelin Howell, or Nadia Nadim present.

After the match Björkegren said this scrimmage was more about building up play fitness than anything. Still, he was happy with the quality of play and the demonstrated progress. Björkegren explained that while some coaches overload players with new information from day one, he works in a deliberate step-by-step method. So, right now the team is working on the build-up. First, they’ll work on the player in the eight position. Then they’ll work on the strikers. Then they’ll add in the wingers.

“The process, it can take a little bit of time, but I think this is the best way to do it,” he said.

Björkegren aims for a more aggressive high pressing style than last year. The players, for their part, seem very positive about their new coach’s approach.

DeMelo called Björkegren “very professional” and said he’s very direct and doesn’t waste time or “fluff around things” when working with players.

“He gets straight to the point, we go in for two hours, and then we’re out,” she said. “It’s a professional environment, but I love it.”

In terms of the new, more aggressive style Salmon said Björkegren has said from the beginning that his style of play would be completely different than what they did last year. 

For us, it’s the way we always wanted to play, but adapting to that is going to be the biggest challenge for us,” she said.

“Our aim this season is to make playoffs and I think the way he set down how he wants to play is going to be how we’re going to do that.”

First Impressions

With so many new faces added to the squad and staff, it will take time for everyone to adjust to the changes. Even so, Salmon said players are adjusting well after only a week or so.

“It’s only been a week so it hasn’t been a long time, but I think all the girls are getting on really well on the pitch. Things are gelling together well, even though we’ve only been on the pitch a week, so we’re getting used to each other as well as we’re getting used to Kim as manager,” she said. “But I think things are going really well. It’s only going to get better over the next five weeks.”

As a rookie, DeMelo only had great things to say about her experiences so far.

“The team is awesome,” she exclaimed. “A lot of rookies came in and the girls were super welcoming and I think that’s kind of rare on a professional team like this, so huge props to them. It made us more comfortable, so I think when you’re in a comfortable environment you can grow and play the way you want.”

She went on to praise the club’s coaches and trainers who make sure players are being properly taken care of.

“They’ve just all been awesome coordinating everything, making sure our bodies are right for every training. I think they do everything right. Our meals are awesome. The staff is great too and the girls are awesome.”

Now it’s time to look ahead to the Challenge Cup. Racing Louisville is scheduled to open the preseason tournament at home on March 18. Finally having games on the schedule is a big deal, said DeMelo. The fact the first two matches are at home is icing on the cake.

“It’s gonna be two big games,” she said. “I think there’s gonna be a good crowd, so it’s kind of nice knowing that we finally have a date and we have now that countdown calendar in our heads.”

Bekki Morgan

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