In a rollercoaster of a match, Racing Louisville fought back from a two-goal deficit to earn a stunning 3-2 win against the Orlando Pride on Friday.
Late in the first half, Savannah DeMelo earned a penalty that was converted by Nadia Nadim to bring the score to 2-1. In the 70th minute, Racing leveled when Carson Pickett sent a perfectly weighted ball into the run of Thembi Kgatlana who sent a low cross to Kirsten Davis who sent a sliding strike into the back of the net. In the 74th minute, an in-swinging corner kick from Pickett was punched into the back of the net by Orlando keeper Anna Moorhouse for a game-winning own goal.
The importance of this game for Racing cannot be overstated. Racing played with an urgency that they’ve lacked in some of their most recent matches and never seemed out of the game even when they were down by two. There’s no question there’s been a changed mentality this season. The execution hasn’t always been perfect, but the players clearly believe in themselves in a way they haven’t in past years and that alone is a huge step forward for this club.
As a result of this win, Racing keeps their season alive with only one game remaining in the regular season. This win is historic for Racing in several ways. Not only does it keep them in the playoffs longer than they’ve ever managed, but this is also the first time Racing has ever earned five wins in the regular season or made it to 27 points.
The fact they’re even still in the playoff race is a huge accomplishment after two weeks in a row that saw them lose critical consecutive games to the Houston Dash at home and the Red Stars in Chicago. Injuries have certainly figured into these performances, with Jaelin Howell and Ary Borges out for multiple games with injury, Uchenna Kanu out due to suspension, and Wang Shuang out for international duty. Carson Pickett has also only recently returned after missing multiple games due to injury, so Racing hasn’t been playing at full strength. Even so, their performances have been inconsistent at best which makes the fact they could earn this critical win during their last home game even more special.
“We had to come here and leave everything, at least to thank the fans for all the support that they’ve given us throughout the season,” Kgatlana said. “I think it was fair enough for us to take every chance that we got. Some of the decisions were against us, especially in the first half, but we ended the first half really well. We used the same momentum [in the second half].”
By the Numbers
This was another extremely close game statistically. Racing had the slightest edge in xG (1.81 to 1.52 according to Opta) and possession (50.4%). Each team had 12 shots with five on goal. They also had almost an identical number of passes (351 for Racing and 356 for Orlando), accurate passes (262 for Racing to 270 for Orlando), and tackles (19 for Racing and 18 for Orlando).
This even match-up is fairly reminiscent of Racing’s last two matches. The last home game against Houston had almost identical numbers and Racing had the edge slightly against Chicago, but they still dropped all six points across both games. Of course, this time they were able to find the edge they needed to get the win.
Racing Louisville have won 12 points from losing positions this season, more than any other team.
Player Management Conundrums
Injuries have certainly impacted Racing’s ability to have a stable lineup in the past month or so. This raises some significant questions about how players were managed through the season — and particularly the Challenge Cup. Head coach Kim Björkegren has not been a fan of rotation unless it’s absolutely required. He played his best eleven through the entire Challenge Cup when most teams rotated their squads quite significantly. The fact so many key players have gone out injured towards the end of the season is arguably the result of this decision to play everyone without a break.
He also has players that he judges as his best and will play them no matter what even if they’re out of position. This has led to some rotations across the front line that have arguably impacted team chemistry. Most notably, Davis has been played on the left, on the right, and then subbed in centrally in recent games to accommodate the addition of Nadia Nadim as the No. 9 even though Davis has primarily played centrally earlier in the season. This has not worked out well for Louisville who has not been able to score in the run of play consistently in recent games.
The fact that Nadim has earned consecutive starts is a symptom of this. Nadim is a superstar for a reason and Björkegren justifiably rates her highly, but she’s also almost 36 and returning from two consecutive ACL injuries. Her giveaway against Chicago led to their game-winning goal. After starting in this match, her giveaway led to Orlando’s second goal. Tthere’s no question that Davis brought a significant amount of energy after being subbed in for Nadim. She has well-established chemistry with Kgatlana that was evident in the equalizer they scored. Was she more effective because she came in with fresh legs? Possibly, but Davis also scored Racing’s most recent non-penalty goal in the Challenge Cup against OL Reign so playing her out of position or not as a starter seems questionable.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but Racing will certainly need to look at how they manage players in the off-season. If depth is the issue, correcting that needs to be a priority so players can be rotated with more regularity. With standings as close as they are, if Racing had gotten all three points out of just one of their draws or losses, they’d be solidly in playoff position. Instead, they floundered through their recent games while hobbled with injuries. Getting to the Challenge Cup final was a huge achievement for this team, but if they fail to make the playoffs because of injuries sustained while pushing players to their limits, will it be worth it?
Chaos in the Standings
In a league already known for its parity, this season has taken it to a whole new level. Never before has every team in the league earned more than 20 points. Last week, only one team — the Kansas City Current — has been eliminated. Even the Chicago Red Stars who have languished through much of the season in last place have managed to have a late surge to keep them in the running.
To give an example of how tight the standings remain, while this game was being played and Orlando was in the lead, they skyrocketed all the way to third place. They would have clinched a spot with a win. Because they lost, they remained all the way back in seventh place with their playoff fate still completely up in the air.
Going into Saturday with four games still left to play across the NWSL, Racing currently sits in eighth place with their playoff fate very much up in the air. Although they cannot be eliminated this week, the historically close standings give them the chance to end the season anywhere from fourth to eleventh place. It certainly helped that the Washington Spirit and OL Reign played to a scoreless draw on Friday night. That keeps the last playoff berth at only 29 points for one more week. That’s well within reach of Racing’s current 27 points.
A win is absolutely critical for Racing in their final match against San Diego on October 15th, but it isn’t enough to guarantee a playoff berth. Quite a few things will have to go their way, including a plethora of other teams losing, but the possibility does remain. The results of Sunday’s Angel City and Houston Dash game will be of particular importance to Louisville because either team could bypass Racing in the standings.