A Lot of Hope Going Forward: Racing Louisville at Houston Dash

Confident and Collected

After a solid string of preseason performances, all eyes were on Racing Louisville to see if they could keep the momentum going in the regular season. By earning a nil-nil draw in Houston on Sunday in their season opener, it now seems apparent that they can.

A scoreless draw might seem underwhelming at a glance, but this was a fun back-and-forth game where both teams dished out some solid chances and made key saves. It could have easily been 2-0 in either direction or 2-2 with just a few more adjustments. For the Dash, this isn’t surprising because they retained their entire starting XI that made the playoffs in 2022. For Racing, this is much more surprising considering they had five new players start the match, including three who were completely new to the NWSL.

Players had been saying all through preseason that they’d been integrating well as a team and that was on full display as every single one of the newcomers made an impact on the match.

On the backline, Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg (who wore the captain’s armband with Jaelin Howell out with a hamstring injury) lived up to all their promise with Pickett creating excellent chances with her crosses and Erceg keeping the defense ordered against Houston’s potent attack. For his part, head coach Kim Björkegren was so impressed by Erceg’s leadership and cool demeanor that he called her “our best player on the pitch.”

As a whole, the defense – which also included Rebecca Holloway at right center and Lauren Milliet as right back – did a solid job and seemed to be on the same page throughout the match. This is a particularly positive development because backline cohesiveness is something Racing has struggled mightily with in the past. Holloway looked fitter and sharper than she’d ever been and Milliet put her body on the line multiple times to keep the score level. Overall, the defensive performance impressed keeper Katie Lund who said, “I just feel so comfortable with those four that it makes my job easier. They worked their tails off.”

She also had praise for Erceg and Pickett and, in particular, their ability to integrate into the back line so seamlessly.

“Carson and Abby come in with such great experience that it’s easy to work with them,” said Lund. “They’re just so good and what they do and they know how to play the game that it basically just comes naturally.”

Abby Erceg and Katie Lund have a chat – Image courtesy the Houston Dash

In the midfield, Brazilian national team player Ary Borges and Finnish national team player Elli Pikkujämsä made their debuts and also looked solid. Pikkujämsä is assumed to be the starting center back next to Erceg but moved up to the No. 6 spot due to Howell’s injury. Her ability to switch positions and still perform solidly drew praise from Pickett who joked, “For like five minutes I played forward tonight and I just was about to die.”

More seriously Pickett praised Pikkujämsä ‘s skills and remarked, “I think she did great. I think she’s a ball winner, she’s really, really good with the ball, she’s technical.”

Borges, who played as the No. 8, was extremely effective in the attack. In the 12th minute, a cross from Pickett worked its way to Borges who deftly turned and cued the ball up for Savannah DeMelo who was making a run into the box. DeMelo’s shot was deflected out to earn a corner that ultimately came to nothing, but the connections between Pickett, Borges, and DeMelo are already very promising. Borges had her own excellent chance just after the 31st minute when another solid cross from Pickett found her feet in front of goal, but her shot, unfortunately, went wide.

Up top, Uchenna Kanu also made her debut for Racing with her best chance coming in the 14th minute off a cross from DeMelo. The ball bounced up and Kanu got a bit too much under it and sent it over the crossbar. Off that ball, Kanu was just as impressive, however. She didn’t stop pressing and was relentless in her work to win the ball back or at least slow the Dash’s progress. This is exactly the type of energy Björkegren has been looking for from his strikers and he said it’s obvious that it’s only a matter of time before she’s finding the back of the net.

“We can see that she’s difficult for opponents to play against and she already today created a lot of chances,” he said. “She’s going to start scoring goals in the next game or in the next after that for sure.”

All in all, this was a solid performance from the whole team against a tough opponent in a tough, very hot environment. It’s unquestionable that this squad has more confidence and control over games than they have ever had previously. It wasn’t a perfect match, but all the pieces for success are there. And even better, it’s not just the eye test that demonstrates Racing’s success. Statistically, there are also very positive signs for the team.

Savannah DeMelo high fives Ary Borges – Image courtesy the Houston Dash

By the Numbers

In the past, it was not uncommon to see massively lopsided statistics between Racing and their opponents. Take their last match against Houston which was interestingly enough also a nil-nil draw. In this previous match, Houston had 15 shots with 10 on goal while Racing had three shots and zero on goal. In other words, Racing held on for dear life and somehow managed to scratch out a point.

In Sunday’s match, however, they actually met Houston on even footing and even surpassed them in a couple of areas. Here, Racing had 17 shots to Houston’s 15 and won nine corners to Houston’s five. Houston did have more shots on frame with seven to Racing’s five, but that’s still massively better than the 10 shots on goal to Racing’s zero last time.

I know that many will say shots or shots on goal don’t matter because they don’t demonstrate the quality of the chance and that’s fine. But in a case like Racing’s where the statistics have been so consistently lopsided, I do believe it’s worth mentioning and also indicates a broad, general positive trend in attacking.

In terms of xG which better demonstrates the quality of the chances created, Houston edged out Racing 1.34 to 1.19. Once again, these are incredibly close numbers which demonstrate just how evenly matched these teams were.

Evenly matched or not Katie Lund came up big for Racing in goal as she always does. She made seven saves on the night including a double save early in the second half that blocked two shots that seemed like inevitable goals. She made seven saves overall which is probably more than Racing or she wanted, but, hopefully, this number will trend down as the back line continues to acclimate.

As a club, Racing made NWSL history when they featured a starting lineup with players from all six habitable continents. In fact, they’re the only NWSL team in history to have players from six different continents.

The best number of the night, however, was 13,000 which is the number of minutes Abby Erceg matched at the 59th-minute mark. She’s only the ninth player in NWSL history to reach this milestone and she should be proud of it.

Looking Ahead: The Washington Spirit

Racing now looks forward to their own home opener this Saturday afternoon against the Washington Spirit.

The Spirit is a bit of a mystery. They have a new coach in Mark Parsons and a very new squad after a ton of turnover. They also still have Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, and Ashley Hatch, however, and that makes them very dangerous.

Just as the Spirit has had an up-and-down road going from league champions in 2021 to 11th out of 12 in 2022, Racing has had very uneven showings against them. In 2021, Racing beat the soon-to-be champions 2-0 and then lost to them 0-2 later that year. In 2022, they drew them twice.

In 2023, we’ve only seen the Spirit against OL Reign in a match Washington won 1-0. This scoreline doesn’t really tell the story of the match, however, because OL Reign dominated much of the match only to squander some wide-open chances. The Spirit was able to break through and win off a goal from – who else – Trinity Rodman, but that’s all it takes against the Spirit; one small lapse and you’re through.

There’s no question Racing has a chance to beat the Spirit. Racing contained Houston well despite weathering the much-lauded twin threats of Ebony Salmon and Diana Ordóñez. If they can buckle down as they did in Houston and keep Rodman contained, they can absolutely get at least one point.

Racing will need to do better than they – or the Reign – did on Sunday, however, to pull in all three. They have to finish the chances that are given to them and they should try and avoid any absurd situations like Milliet needing to grasp the ball in her legs, laying down until Lund could dive on her to save a goal. Racing played a very clean game overall against Houston, but the faster they can work blips like this out of their system, the better. Offensively, they just need a bit more time to knock the rust off as well. We’ve seen the sparks of connection between DeMelo and Kanu and Borges and Pickett so we know that big chances are possible, now they just need to put them away.

Racing will have the home crowd advantage, however, and they’ll be in the more hospitable climate of Louisville instead of the heat of Houston (“Even when it’s not hot, it’s hot,” said Pickett). Hopefully, this will be enough to get Racing their first win of the season and set them on a solid path into the rest of the season.

The biggest mark in Racing’s favor, however, is their mindset. There’s a newfound confidence in this team that fans haven’t seen yet in Louisville. This is a team that’s proud and fired up and ready to show what they can do.

“Honestly, it’s amazing to be part of a team who just will do anything to win,” said Pickett. “That’s how it feels with this group. I always talk about chemistry as well as culture. This team is honestly incredible. I love them like family and I think that in the long run is going to help us win games because you just want to fight for each other.”

On their performance in Houston, she said that it gave her “a lot of hope going forward” because they are such a new group that’s still learning each other but still played so well as a unit. As for what the future holds, Pickett has no doubts either.

“I think it’ll only get better and better.”

Bekki Morgan

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