Previewing Racing Louisville’s season and opener versus the Houston Dash

It’s been a long, long offseason, but Racing Louisville is finally ready to start the 2023 regular season. Houston Dash

After a tough midseason slog that featured a 13-game winless streak, Racing turned a corner and ended the 2022 season on a high note winning three out of their final four matches. To put that in perspective, Racing only had five wins all season, so they clocked in over 50% of their total wins in the final four games of the season. Not great.

Since then, there’ve added some important new faces to the roster, the coaching staff, and (soon enough) the front office. There have also been some key extensions signed that have provided the most solid foundation the club has ever had.

Will these developments add up to a winning season for Racing? And how are they likely to fair in their first major test against the Houston Dash this Sunday night? Let’s take a look at the impact these key personnel changes might make, what Racing’s preseason performances say about the club’s development, and what they might face when they come up against Houston this weekend. Houston Dash

Good bones, added muscle

Despite their 9th place showing last season, it was obvious that Racing had good bones. They were competitive in all but a few matches. They had some standout personal performances. They just couldn’t get it all working together at once. So, they had good bones, they just needed some help in fleshing them out. And through trades and savvy international signings during the off-season, Racing has found creative ways to add some muscle.

The biggest issue Racing had in 2022 was in defense and in the attack. They scored too few and gave up too many even with keeper Katie Lund making a heroic and record-breaking 112 saves. This may seem like a simple problem, but it doesn’t always have an easy solution. Luckily, in the past couple of months, they’ve made significant progress in shoring up both of these areas.

Most notably, Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg were traded to Racing from the North Carolina Courage in exchange for Emily Fox. Both are storied veterans who regularly rank among the best defenders in the league so while losing Fox is painful, getting two solid defenders – including a left back of at least equal stature – in return was an amazing piece of negotiating by Racing. It’s safe to assume that with these players added to the roster and a more experienced Katie Lund in goal, there is a high likelihood that Racing concedes fewer goals this season.

Carson Pickett in a long sleeve purple training top smiles and half reclines in the grass in between teammates
Carson Pickett – Image courtesy Racing Lousiville

Racing also acquired Paige Monaghan from NJ/NY Gotham in a draft day trade that also gave Racing the $150,000 and international slot they needed to sign Nigerian striker Uchenna Kanu from Liga MX’s Tigres. Monaghan is a versatile player who can play anywhere on the wing, so, by herself, she helps shore up the defense while adding some potential offensive firepower as well. Kanu, meanwhile, averaged a goal every other game in Liga MX. Even if she only scores half of those goals in the NWSL she’ll likely break Racing’s scoring records and have a massive offensive impact. Houston Dash

Additionally, Racing added Brazilian midfielder Ary Borges, Finnish defender Elli Pikkujämsä, and signed two of their four draftees – midfielder Kayla Fischer from Ohio State and forward Riley Parker from Alabama. Parker, however, was quickly loaned out to Tigres as part of the trade to acquire Kanu. And although she was signed in the previous season, South African superstar Thembi Kgatlana has also finally joined the club now that she’s mostly through her rehab from a ruptured Achilles. All of these players help strengthen Racing across their lines and, better yet, all have made a strong impact during the preseason – but more on that later.

All this added muscle will only help strengthen the good bones the team had last year in Katie Lund, Lauren Milliet, Savannah DeMelo, and newly announced captain Jaelin Howell. All of these young players have signed through 2025 – as have Monaghan and Pickett – so Racing has a solid foundation to build off of for years to come. Add in powerhouses Jessica McDonald, Wang Shuang, Emina Ekic, Kirsten Davis, and others who will be with Racing for at least another year and you have a very fun squad of players for 2023. Houston Dash

On the technical staff side, Racing has also added former Gotham assistant coach Bev Yanez to the coaching staff. She’s already received rave reviews from players who praise the technical focus she’s brought to their training. As a former player for OL Reign as recently as 2020, Yanez also brings a level of NWSL experience to the staff that the club has never had before which is invaluable.

Finally, Racing is due to announce the signing of their first general manager as soon as next week. The position has been filled, the club is just awaiting final league approval before it can be announced.

Savannah DeMelo
Savannah DeMelo makes a sliding cross versus the U.S. U-23s – Image courtesy Taylor Vincent

A good, strong heart

So it’s established that Racing now has the good bones and the necessary muscle they’d been lacking in previous seasons. But what about the heart and the mind? After all, you can have the best, fittest body in the world, but if you’re lacking the heart to compete or the smarts to put it all together, you’re not going to get very far.

To answer that, let’s look to a recent interview on ESPN Louisville 980’s Soccer City Radio where Bev Yanez said she is “110 percent” sure this team has what it takes to make the playoffs because of its heart. Houston Dash

“You talk a lot about tactics, you talk a lot about expectations, you talk a lot about positional profiles and expectations, but you don’t always talk and dive a lot into heart and heart 90 percent of the time wins and loses games,” said Yanez. “And so this group is amazing about how they feel about one another, how they feel about what’s being asked of them. They are a very blue-collar team in regards to wanting to put the work in because they genuinely care about what they’re doing and they genuinely care about what’s being asked of them. So not a lot of people talk about that, but it’s probably the one glaring thing for me in the role that I’m in and being new to this environment that has really, really stood out to me and it’s been really, really special to be a part of.”

The players themselves echo everything Yanez has said. According to Savannah DeMelo, “I think just us being so close makes us want to work for each other. We all want to win for each other, and for our coach. So I think it just adds that level of family to it and makes it a little bit more special and more meaningful. And it’s not really about one specific player. We all want to do well just for the club and the team.” Houston Dash

And it is this welcoming, group-oriented mindset that has been instrumental in helping new players integrate and also helping improve the results on the pitch. After a preseason match against Portland last week, Pickett said she was actually surprised by how comfortable she felt with the team despite playing against the reigning league champs in front of vocal Thorns fans.

“Since I’ve gotten [to Louisville], I’ve felt at home, I’ve felt comfortable, and I’ve gotten to know the girls relatively quickly,” said Pickett. “So I think that’s something that’s showing on the field. I feel like I already know how people play, where they want the ball, where they’re gonna be, what their movements are, so it’s definitely feeling really, really comfortable early on. And I’ve definitely been to a lot of teams and they’re not all like that.”

In retrospect, the massive turnover last year was probably critical in establishing this culture where players who are bought into the club want to be in Louisville. This isn’t to criticize any players who left, of course. Players should be able to be where they want to be and clubs shouldn’t hold onto anyone that isn’t fully bought into their vision.

So the fact Racing now has a group that is bought into the team is a big difference maker according to Katie Lund. At a recent player town hall with season ticket holders, she told attendees, “I think right now you’ll see hopefully everyone wants to be here from a players standpoint, and I can’t say that that’s been the case every year, so I think we’re in a really good place.”

Katie Lund
Katie Lund versus OL Reign in a preseason match – Image courtesy Taylor Vincent

The brains to put it together

With muscle added and a good heart firmly in place, it’s now time to look at the biggest question facing Louisville in 2023: Does Racing have the ability to put it all together into a playoff-caliber team? Houston Dash

The answer is, of course, that it’s impossible to know ahead of the regular season. The best we can do is look at their preseason performances to gauge whether or not they look better from last year.

But before we dive into performance, it’s worth noting that Racing switched up their regular preseason routine by actively seeking out NWSL opponents. In the past Racing has only played against collegiate squads. Björkegren changed this after last year’s rookies told him they didn’t feel prepared enough for the speed of play or physicality of the professional league after only playing college teams. So even without looking at the results, it’s fair to say that the many newcomers to the league on Racing’s roster are at least more acclimated than they would have been previously.

As for the actual preseason results, they’ve been very positive based on what little we know about them. During their trip to Florida in February, Racing played the Washington Spirit to a 0-0 draw. After returning home, they met the Chicago Red Stars in Indianapolis where they fell behind 0-2 but fought back to win 3-2. But since both of these matches were behind closed doors, it’s hard to gauge exactly how Racing performed.

However, last week, Racing traveled to Portland to play in a preseason tournament hosted by the Thorns that also featured OL Reign and the U.S. U-23s. Unlike previous preseason matches, these were open to the public so viewers were able to get their first glimpse of what Racing looked like in action.

It’s a big ask for last year’s 9th-place team to take on the reigning league champs (Portland) and last year’s shield winner (OL Reign) and expect strong results – especially because Racing has never beaten either team in any of their previous matchups. And yet Racing performed incredibly well and won two out of three games.

“We had a really good tournament and I think it surprised us as a group,” admitted Abby Erceg who said the team was progressing.

First, Racing took on the Thorns and managed to hold a nil-nil draw until the 86th minute when Portland capitalized off a set piece. Erceg said that despite the loss, the team was very positive about the experience because they played solidly and gave up no easy goals. This is especially positive because Portland did start league MVP Sophia Smith and starters like Rocky Rodriguez, Sam Coffey, and Meghan Klingenberg. Portland did have some rotation, of course, but so did Racing and the score still stayed level for the vast majority of the game. Houston Dash

“Overall, it was really good,” said Björkegren about his team’s performance. “Of course, it’s not so fun to lose the game from a set piece with just three minutes left. But if you compare this game with the game we played here five months ago – that was a game we were almost happy we lost only 3-0, but today we are super disappointed because we felt like we could win the game. It was a close game. We had our chances. We need to be a little bit better inside the box. But we’re doing a great job and there are so many positive things to take with us.”

Next, Racing took on OL Reign and won 2-0. This was a particularly interesting match because although OL Reign started with a heavily rotated squad, Racing didn’t score until the second half after a couple of Racing starters had been subbed off. In fact, it was rookie Kayla Fischer who scored the first goal and ultimate game-winner only five minutes after being subbed in at the half. This was actually her second goal of the preseason as she had also scored the first goal against Chicago earlier in the month.

Fischer goal celebration
Kayla Fischer celebrates her goal against OL Reign with Parker Goins – Image courtesy Taylor Vincent

After Fischer scored, OL Reign began subbing in big guns like Emily Sonnett, Rose Lavelle, and Tziarra King. But Racing only scored again thanks to Jessica McDonald’s perfect read of a bad back pass where she beat the keeper to the ball and nudged in Racing’s second on the night.

This goal only accelerated OL Reign’s addition of starters like Sofia Huerta, Alanna Cook, and Lauren Barnes. Meanwhile, Racing continued to sub out their starters, taking out Erceg, Pickett, and Ary Borges. And yet OL Reign could never capitalize and the game ended 2-0.

Just a few days later, Racing would beat the U.S. U-23s 3-1 and the most notable point about this game was that all three goals were scored by newcomers. Pikkujämsä, Kanu, and Borges all got on the board for Racing with Borges and Kanu taking a bit of a beating as they went in hard against the U.S. keeper.

All in all, these results are impressive for Racing even if preseason matches aren’t ever quite equal to regular season matches. There’s unquestionable progress displayed during these games in terms of shoring up the defense and offense. If they can keep Portland and OL Reign out while scoring five goals in three games, that’s a marked improvement from last year.

Outside of the results, it was particularly heartening to see just how well the whole squad worked together. In particular, Pickett, Erceg, and Pikkujämsä blended together almost seamlessly. In these three preseason matches, they consistently looked more cohesive than Racing’s backline did through most of 2022. Borges, Monaghan, and Kanu also snapped into the squad quickly and read the other players’ moves well to create some dangerous chances. For NWSL newcomers Borges and Kanu, at least, fans shouldn’t worry too much about a learning curve for either of them.

So when everything is looked at in totality, Racing is going into the regular season full-bodied with no glaring weaknesses. All currently rostered players got ample minutes on the pitch and many were able to try out different positions and display their versatility. The team is integrating well so it seems like the mind and body of the team are in very good working order.

That’s all well and good, but it still has yet to be seen how this positive preseason will translate into the regular season. So let’s look at what Racing will be facing on Sunday against the Houston Dash and see what we might expect from this matchup.

Jaelin Howell versus the Dash in 2022 -Image courtesy Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 Houston Dash

There’s no question Houston is going to be a hard team to beat. They mostly retained the team that last season got them into the playoffs for the first time in club history and, furthermore, they’ve added a key offensive piece as well in Diana Ordóñez. Last season, Ordóñez made a strong run in the golden boot race and scored 11 goals for North Carolina despite only being a rookie. Now she’s moved to Houston where she’ll be adding to their already potent attack.

There are still a couple of big questions around Houston: First, how will head coach Sam Laity fare? Laity comes from over a decade with OL Reign and even had a temporary stint as head coach in the gap between Farid Benstiti and Laura Harvey. At that time, he did well, but it was with a team he knew backward and forward. Will he be able to be as effective with a completely new squad of players?

The fact that Houston did retain most of their long-time players bodes well for the team. They already weathered one coaching disruption last year after James Clarkson was suspended and still managed to make it all the way to the playoffs. An experienced coach like Laity and an experienced squad like the Dash should have a high likelihood of coming together rather quickly, so this probably won’t be much of a problem.

There’s also some question about how Houston’s attack will be arranged. The addition of Ordóñez is unquestionably positive, but she’s a central strike and Houston already has a very young, star central striker in Ebony Salmon. Will Laity play a top two? Will he rotate them? Will he ask one to play out wide? It’s hard to say, but it’s far from the worst problem to have as a coach.

When facing the Dash, Racing should expect a very physical game with a highly potent attack. For a team that plays a very high line, keeping both Ordóñez and Salmon out will be tough. And Salmon will unquestionably be playing with a chip on her shoulder against her former team, so there’s that extra layer to contend with as well. Racing was able to keep Sophia Smith and Rose Lavelle out during preseason, but the stakes are much higher now that the regular season is underway.

It also doesn’t help that Jaelin Howell is most likely to be out with a hamstring injury sustained in the match against OL Reign. And even if she does play, it’s very unlikely to be for a full match. In that case, Pikkujämsä will likely move forward as the holding midfield leaving a question mark as to who will play next to Erceg. Rebecca Holloway played there at least once in Portland, but it’s also possible we’ll see Satara Murray who started many of Racing’s final matches in 2022.

Racing’s most glaring issue is the right side of their back line. If Pickett and Erceg have stepped in as unquestionable starters on the left side, there’s really no solid answer as to who will be starting on the right side. Both Paige Monaghan and Lauren Milliet have played as right back and, as mentioned above, without Pikkujämsä there’s no seemingly guaranteed right central defender either. Normally both these spots could be filled by Julia Lester, but up until recently she was in a boot and didn’t travel for the Portland tournament. This makes it seem unlikely she’ll be available by Sunday. Houston Dash

The good news is that Erceg is an experienced and vocal leader on the pitch. She captained the North Carolina Courage through numerous championships and shields and will be wearing the captain’s armband if Howell is out of the match. If there’s anyone who can at least help keep a shaky backline in position and working as a unit, it’s Erceg.

Offensively, it’s also a bit of a mystery who Björkegren might play. There should be no question that Borges, Wang, and DeMelo will be adding attacking power from the midfield. Up top, however, it’ll be interesting to see if Björkegren thinks Kanu is ready to be thrown into the challenge despite only being with the team for a little over a week. I’m guessing he will use her, but if not there’s always Jess McDonald and Kirsten Davis. Houston Dash

No matter how you slice it, however, this match will be a test for Racing. It should definitely boost their confidence that they performed above expectations in their most recent preseason tests, so if they can hold it to a tight game in either direction it can still be considered a win. The most important thing Racing can demonstrate in this match is that they can stay calm, focused, and work as a unit. Houston will throw a ton of problems at it, now Racing has to show they can solve them collectively.

Final thoughts

I’m always extremely hesitant to go all in on how a club will do in the regular season because it’s impossible to tell. Look at the Spirit’s dive from first to worst over the course of the last season. Or the opposite trajectory of the Kansas City Current.

So I’m not going to assign Racing a made-up ranking in the standings they may or may not achieve. I feel that they will almost unquestionably do better than they did last year just based on preseason performances, but outside of stats and tactics and all that quantitative stuff, the thing that has impressed me the most is the heart that Yanez described. There’s something special with this group that we haven’t seen yet in Louisville. These players are bought in, ready to fight for the city, and wear the crest and they’re also ready to fight for each other. They genuinely care about each other and enjoy each other’s company in a way that is infectious.

But don’t just take my word for it. Everyone I know who has seen Racing for the first time this year has mentioned it to me unprompted. First, a friend who saw Racing practice in Portland texted me just to say there was a ‘palpable joy’ around the team that they’d not seen elsewhere. Another friend who saw the practice in Portland wrote in a piece for the Rose City Review that said “their training sessions are filled with laughter, fun, and joyful vibes. They enjoy being around each other so much, and most of them want to be around each other all the time.”

So, I’m telling you, there’s something special about this team and, apparently, everyone can see it. Savannah DeMelo was a revelation last year and now we have the chance to see Ary Borges, Uchenna Kanu, and more become revelations in their own right. We also get to see stars like Erceg and Pickett wear Racing’s crest and returning standouts like Katie Lund and Jaelin Howell in Racing’s colors. Houston Dash

This is a season where Racing can finally turn the corner from the scandal and pain that has defined much of their first two years. There are new kits, new players, new extensions with core players, and, generally, a whole new hopeful vibe around the team. Maybe this heart and hopefulness will translate onto the pitch, maybe it won’t. It’s hard to tell. But either way, there’s no question it’s going to be a fun ride. You won’t want to miss it.

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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.