Silver Linings: Racing gives up another lead for a 2-2 draw, this time against OL Reign

Racing Louisville returned home Saturday night and played some of the best soccer they’ve ever played. They scored two beautiful goals in front of an energetic crowd of over 6,000 on a perfect 63-degree Spring evening. And they didn’t just outplay second-place OL Reign in the first 45 minutes of the match, they utterly dominated them and then continued to perform admirably into the second half. And yet, once again, individual mistakes kept them from earning the full three points and they had to, once again, settle for a 2-2 draw.

“I think it’s coming together. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Remembering that is super important,” remarked forward Paige Monaghan after the match. Monaghan earned her first start for Racing since joining the team in the off-season and scored the first goal of the match in the seventh minute after cleaning up a poor clearance in front of goal.

Ultimately, Monaghan is right. This match stings because Racing absolutely did enough to earn a win, but the fact they earned a draw doesn’t erase what was a pretty solid game. Louisville is clearly moving on from the inconsistency that plagued them earlier in the season. Even with Racing’s two goals coming in the first half and OL Reign’s in the second half, this was not really a tale of two halves. Just as in their last match against Portland, the team collectively played well across the majority of the game, it’s really individual mistakes that cost them.

Another good sign is that it’s not the same players making mistakes over and over again. Last week, Wang Shuang had an awful turnover but she looked fantastic this week against Seattle. Jaelin Howell also had a stellar night. Monaghan herself said she blamed herself for giving up the equalizer to Angel City two weeks ago, but she more than made up for any errors against OL Reign.

What’s most surprising is that it’s two of Racing’s most consistent, stalwart players who had problems. Katie Lund has been so reliable since she took over the starting spot last season that it’s shocking when she has a mediocre match. The fact she came out hard to challenge an opponent who was moving away from goal when Abby Erceg was also present was the most questionable play of the night and it gave up a penalty that OL Reign converted for their first goal. She also looked a bit flat-footed against the header that ultimately equalized the match, but that was a clinical header into the top corner so there probably wasn’t much she could do anyway. Prior to these moments, Lund was barely called into action. OL Reign only mustered three shots with one on goal in the first half, so will the young keeper have to learn how to stay in the zone when Racing dominates? Possibly and it’s better to learn this lesson now in the early part of the season than later.

The most costly error, however, was Savannah DeMelo’s kicking away the ball after the whistle had been blown which earned her a second yellow. While that’s about as soft a red as a player can earn, the referee had moments before carded Seattle’s Sofia Huerta. Therefore, it was needlessly reckless to take that risk and, ultimately, bring your team down to 10 players. This is a hard lesson to learn and there’s no question she’ll be harder on herself about it than anyone, but again, it’s better to learn it now than later. DeMelo has been transcendent on the field and scored one of the prettiest half-volley goals you’ll ever see to give Racing their second. But this is the second game where she let her emotions arguably get the best of her. She drew needless fouls and earned a yellow against Angel City as well, so hopefully having such strong consequences – even if they were questionably harsh – will keep anything similar from happening again.

Ultimately, these are two young, immensely talented players who for all intents and purposes are in the second year of their professional careers. Lund has been a professional longer, of course, but this is only her second year as a starter. These are hard lessons and a tough result for Racing, but it’s still early enough in the season that mistakes like this aren’t deadly. Even so, the team is understandably upset by only coming away with a point.

“We’re all gutted,” said team captain Howell after the match. “It was one of our best games for Racing in general as a club, especially against a quality opponent, one of the best teams in the league. We came out on fire. We did what we wanted to do. To let them creep back and, in the 90th minute, give away a goal – it’s heartbreaking, especially because we just did that in (Los Angeles).

“Silver lining: The overall performance was very good, and there wasn’t much difference in halves. … We just have to continue to grow, but obviously very disappointed that it was the quality of play we wanted and we didn’t get the three points.”

Paige Monaghan celebrates her goal / Image courtesy USA Today Sports

By the Numbers

This wasn’t really a game of two halves even if the stats somewhat point to it. Instead, the stats and the eye test together point more to Racing dominating OL Reign to an unprecedented degree and then playing a more or less typical match-up against them in the second.

In the first half, Racing generated 0.83 xG and held OL Reign to only 0.1. In the second half, Racing was limited to 0.17 while OL Reign had 1.34. But let’s remember that 0.788 of that xG for Seattle was Rapinoe’s penalty. Remove that and OL Reign only generated 0.55 in the run of play. Racing had 16 shots with eight on target across the whole match. Seven of those on-target shots came in the first half which is a single-half club record for Racing. Meanwhile, Seattle had 10 shots total with only four on target.

OL Reign did hold the majority of possession with about 60% overall. They definitely held the majority of possession in the second half by a large margin, but Racing still never seemed to be played out of the match as they were against Angel City. They needed to hold possession better, but the fact they lost DeMelo in the 72nd minute and kept OL Reign from doing much of anything until the 90th minute is pretty good regardless of how the stats look.

Against Angel City, Racing scored two goals in the first half at home for the first time. Previously, they’d scored two in the first half twice against Angel City, but never at home.

Abby Erceg celebrated her 150th appearance before the match and gave a performance befitting a top veteran defender. She made eight interceptions and four clearances which were the most of any player on either team. She also led the team in touches and accurate passes and had a 90% passing accuracy.

Abby Erceg celebrates her 150th cap / Image courtesy USA Today Sports Photos

Key Takeaways

This is Not Angel City, Pt. 2

By looking at only the score line and the timing of the goals, this match seems like it might be Angel City, Pt. 2. In both 2-2 draws, Racing scored early and picked up their second at the very end of the first half to go into halftime 2-0. They then gave up two goals with the first coming from a set piece and the equalizer coming very late in the second.

This was not the same match at all, however. While Racing did play excellently in the first half of the Angel City match, they utterly collapsed in the second. They couldn’t handle Angel City’s pressure and produced practically nothing of substance in the final 45 minutes. Angel City took over the game and Racing couldn’t keep up. Against Seattle, however, they not only played even better in the first half than they did against Angel City – letting in fewer crosses, next to no shots, etc. – they stayed in the game in the second half despite going down to 10 players.

As a result, Angel City was thrilled with their draw. They fought back and earned it. OL Reign definitely worked to get the draw. They didn’t roll over and die, but they got the penalty handed to them and should have probably produced more against 10 players with DeMelo, one of Racing’s most dynamic players, off the field. Watching the bench and the team after this match, OL Reign was not thrilled with this draw. They know they were outplayed and so it was cold comfort to them

So it’s a testament to Racing’s strength that they were able to hold off Seattle as much as they did.

The one thing that was similar to Angel City was the lack of substitutions. Head coach Kim Björkegren argues that bringing in subs can disrupt the flow of the game, but forcing tired players to defend deep benches like OL Reign’s also set players up for failure. Especially when DeMelo went out, waiting as long as Racing did to bring in defensive subs seems like a poor decision in retrospect.

Racing celebrates DeMelo’s goal / Timothy D. Easley-USA TODAY Sports

Silver Linings

Watching this game, there is no question that Racing Louisville is a very good team. In fact, they are very close to being a great team.

Racing has four draws and one loss in five matches. It’s not ideal, but there hasn’t been a single game where they haven’t put together strong periods of play if not outright dominated their opponents at times. This isn’t the team of the past two years that played like a scrappy little sibling who would occasionally pull a result away from a bigger, tougher team by holding on by their fingernails. Louisville has been a challenge for every team they’ve played and they’ve started the season with some of the top teams in the entire league.

After last night’s match, OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey didn’t mince words. In her post-game interview, she said of Louisville, “They were a threat all night. I’ve said to a lot of people I think Louisville is a really good team. They’ll be making the playoffs this year, no doubt in my mind.”

It’s one thing for Racing’s players to say they believe in themselves and think they’ll make the playoffs. It’s another for the coach of last year’s shield winners and this year’s current second-place team to say not just politely say that Louisville played well or gave them a hard game, but that there’s no doubt they’re a playoff team. Harvey has seen a lot of NWSL soccer and has overseen a lot of winning squads. This is very high praise.

The fact Racing is doing so well is why results like this are so frustrating. Racing knows they’re better than this. Fans know they’re better than this. They’re not the underdog anymore. They’re playing against teams like OL Reign as equals and they should be getting three points.

So while the results do feel like a gut punch, there are plenty of silver linings. The team kept the pressure up throughout the whole first half and much of the second without playing frantically, as they did against Angel City. They still struggled with the high press in the second half to some extent but were never overwhelmed. Midfielders got back and defended better than they have in any previous match which helped smother OL Reign’s attack.

Individually, players also mostly did very well. Until her second yellow, DeMelo was fantastic. Jaelin Howell is playing like the holding midfielder everyone knew she could be. Fearless, physical, but smart with her tackles, and excellent at winning possession. Paige Monaghan was making runs in the box and putting herself in dangerous positions regularly. She may have earned a starting spot with her excellent performance. Defenders Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg continue to demonstrate their incredible value to the club in terms of skill and experience. Pickett even had two excellent shots in the first half! Wang had a bad game against Portland and came back on fire. Julia Lester also returned and earned her first minutes after a preseason injury and looked as sharp as ever.

And the thing that needs to be remembered is that there are still a number of players out or just returning and getting minutes. Elli Pikkujämsä, Thembi Kgatlana, Emina Ekic, and Nadia Nadim were all out for this match. Jess McDonald had an excused absence. Uchenna Kanu just got her first limited minutes against Seattle after missing the two previous matches. If Racing looks this good with an incomplete roster, it’s not unreasonable to assume they’ll look even better when they can get the starting lineup they’d always planned on onto the field.

Milestones and Landmarks

This game marked the 1,000th regular season match in league history. That’s a big occasion and it brought some extra attention to this match, including a visit from the commissioner, Jessica Berman.

During Berman’s visit, she told WHAS 11’s Tyler Greever that she’s only heard good things from Racing’s players about the team’s growth and progress. In particular, players praised the additions of general manager Ryan Dell to the front office and assistant coach Bev Yanez to the sporting staff. This will certainly come to the relief of any of Racing’s fans still concerned about team culture behind the scenes.

After a rough home opener that included plummeting temperatures and 45-mile-per-hour wind gusts, it was also good to see the crowd return to more typical Racing attendance numbers. The opener brought in approximately 4,800, but Saturday’s match brought in just over 6,100 fans. It’s a good sign that weather may have been more of a deterrent for the opening match than fans lost due to fallout from the investigative reports that came out in the off-season.

There’s no question that Racing needs to win if they’re going to grow their fanbase further. The good news is that even without a win, this was a fun game that was worthy of a landmark 1,000th league match. Anyone watching should be able to see that Racing is a talented team that can play exciting soccer. If they can start tipping some of these draws into wins, they might be able to finally push fan support to the next level.

Looking Ahead

Racing’s home visit will be shortlived as they head to Florida this weekend to play the Orlando Pride. The Pride have had a very tough start to the season and lost every game until this week against San Diego. They didn’t just win, they handed the Wave a solid 3-1 loss.

Playing a reinvigorated Pride in Orlando is definitely not ideal – especially without DeMelo. But even with the intense parity in the NWSL, Racing has to believe they are the better team and play like it. How they respond to yet another draw will say a lot about the team’s mentality. After playing as well as they have against top teams in the league, Racing needs to get three points this coming weekend. They can’t come in and challenge teams like OL Reign and then fold to teams on the bottom half of the table.

It’s still early in the season, but five games are almost a quarter of the way through. The wins need to start coming now if Racing is going to actually make a solid run up the standings into the playoffs.

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.