Racing Louisville scrape out a point in gutsy 1-1 draw with the Spirit

In one of their grittiest performances to date, Racing Louisville scrapped out a point in a 1-1 draw against the Washington Spirit on Saturday night.

After the match, head coach Kim Björkegren was emphatic with his praise saying, “It was amazing. I’m so happy to work with this group of people. The energy they have, they never give up. When we needed to change, play 4-4-1 in the end, they did it. They kept fighting. They worked hard together. One point away in Washington is not bad – I’m extremely proud of them.”

After going down a goal in only the third minute, Louisville was kept on the back foot through much of the first half. They were able to play their way into the match, however, after the 20th minute or so and kept things level going into the second half.  Only minutes into the second half, Ary Borges was fouled in the box and Racing was awarded a penalty. Savannah DeMelo calmly converted it to find the equalizer.

Everything stayed even until the 76th minute when newly subbed in center-back Elli Pikkujämsä took down Trinity Rodman just in front of the box and was given a straight red. Down to only 10 players, Racing defended with everything they had. A few defensive subs helped them bunker down further and a stoppage time goal line save by Carson Pickett ultimately earned Racing a hard-fought point on the road.

“We’re obviously happy with the draw,” said defender Abby Erceg after the match. “One point against one of the top teams with 10 men for 20 minutes – we’ll take that.”

In particular, Erceg said she was “really, really proud” of the team’s ability to hold on to the draw for 20 minutes while down a man – especially coming at the end of the three-game week.

“It’s tough. It’s a really tough situation to be in and I think the girls handled it really well.”

Racing has only lost once in their last four games in the regular season. Across all competition, they’ve lost once in their last six games. While they’re still having trouble getting all three points from teams above them in the standings, the fact they were able to get a point off of the Spirit who are (as of Sunday morning) third in the standings and only a few points out of first place.

Still, Racing has not been able to make any progress up the table and remain in eighth place. If Angel City beats Chicago on Monday, they might even drop down to ninth. With the top teams continuing to pull away, making progress up the table will continue to be hard. The best Racing can do next week is move up one spot and that depends on getting a result against a top team – the San Diego Wave – and the North Carolina Courage losing to the struggling Chicago Red Stars.

Still, a hard-earned draw in a gutsy game is worth more than its points in terms of strengthening the team’s resolve and mentality. When asked if he was satisfied with the draw, Björkegren  responded, “I am, I have to say…you need to win games to get into the playoffs but sometimes you need to take a step back and say, hey, this was a tough game…and one point in a game like this is not bad.”

Abby Erceg holds of the Spirit’s Ashley Sanchez late in the match / Image courtesy USA Today Sports

By the Numbers

Louisville has scored in each of their last four games in regular season play, scoring seven goals in that run. This ties Racing’s longest scoring run from 12th June 2022 to 9th July 2022.

In five games when Racing has conceded first this season, they’ve lost three and drawn two. Interestingly, both draws are against the Washington Spirit. Also, interestingly, there was a red card in the last meeting between these teams as well this April when the Spirit’s Paige Metayer earned two yellows. This wasn’t a straight red, obviously, and also came in stoppage time so it was nearly as impactful as Pikkujämsä’s was for Racing on Saturday. Metayer was, however, the player who fouled Borges to earn the penalty, so she’s had some poor luck against Racing.

Although Racing held the majority of possession in the first half (54%) possession ended up mostly even with the Spirit slightly topping them overall (52%). This is in large part due to Racing’s bunkering down in the second half after going down to 10 players. Passing accuracy was also almost equal across both teams with Racing getting close to 78% and the Spirit close to 77%.

The Spirit did kill them in final third entries with 63 to Racing’s 36, but most of these from the Spirit came in the second half as the result, in part, of Racing going down a player and moving more into pure defense.

Unsurprisingly, Washington topped Racing in xG with the Spirit generating 2.59 and Racing generating 1.33. It’s worth noting that 0.788 of Racing’s xG was generated by the penalty converted by DeMelo so they only generated 0.542 in the run of play. After generating over 2 xG in their last several games, including last week’s loss against the North Carolina Courage.

The Spirit vastly outshot Racing with 21 to 11 shots, but neither team was particularly accurate with the Spirit only getting five shots on target with Racing getting three. Clearly, Racing’s finishing woes are not yet behind him. Luckily for them, the Spirit also had serious issues finishing this game as well and part of that had to do with the mental battle on the field as much as the physical one.

Key Takeaways

Winning the Mental Battle

Even though both teams ended up splitting the points, it’s not a stretch to say that Racing won the mental battle in this match. While they might not have generated the goals they wanted, they played their way back into the game and then stayed calm and collected to eke out a draw.

Case in point, Erceg calmly kept both Sanchez back during late runs down the left flank and made some key clearances. Lauren Milliet put in a gutsy showing against Trinity Rodman and neutralized her through much of the second half. Late in stoppage time, keeper Katie Lund moved to collect a ball from the air and missed and the tie was preserved by a goal-line clearance from Carson Pickett. Pickett was able to clear because both she and Rebecca Holloway immediately moved to cover the goal after Lund stepped out and ultimately saved the game for Racing. And then Kgatlana earned a yellow for a professional foul to keep Ashely Hatch from breaking away and creating a dangerous opportunity.

Even after going down to 10 players and shifting to a defensive formation Racing kept trying to attack. They were careful not to put risky numbers forward, but still made attempts. Case in point, Thembi Kgatlana made a central run and drew a foul immediately to the right of the D of the penalty box. DeMelo took the set piece and tried to slip the ball through the wall instead of going over it and that didn’t ultimately work, but it’s still impressive they were able to create a very dangerous chance down a player and in late stoppage time.

Ultimately, this draw is a very good example of Racing showing that they’re learning how to preserve results against top teams. They got a point by playing intelligently and fighting as a collective. Racing was determined not to concede a goal and the Spirit ultimately couldn’t figure out how to break them down or keep them fully on their back foot because Racing ultimately was more cohesive, more determined to get a result, and the grittier team. And this is even more impressive when you remember Racing was at the tail end of a three-game week that involved two consecutive away games and the Spirit were fully rested.

“There was a lot of heart in what we were doing,” said Erceg. “People were just fighting left, right, and center for everything. You could see clearances off the line, people going into tackles, bloody noses. People are giving life and limb to defend. I think it’s new for this team, that mindset that, ‘We are not going to give up a goal. We are not going to lose a point here. We’re going to come away with a point even with 10. Really, really proud of the girls.”

Seeing Red

Despite Racing’s gutsy performance, the number one thing that will probably be remembered from this match is the fact that Elli Pikkujämsä got a red card only one minute and 19 seconds after coming into the match. This has now set the record for the shortest time for receiving a red card and probably the shortest time a player has ever appeared in a match.

It’s always dangerous to substitute your center-backs, especially in a fast-paced match against some of the quickest, most dangerous attackers in the entire league. Ultimately, Björkegren said it was a tactical decision. Once they saw that the Spirit was relying more on long ball more frequently, they decided to sub in Pikkujämsä who is better in the air and better with long ball distribution herself. They had hoped she would be able to bypass much of the Spirit’s midfield and send balls in to Kgatlana and score on the Spirit similarly to how Rodman scored on them earlier.

Björkegren called the change a “bad decision on me,” but it’s really hard to truly see it as a bad decision. After all, as bad as getting a red card is, it almost certainly stopped Rodman from scoring and preserved the game. If Racing had dropped the tie, it obviously wouldn’t be seen as a positive, but Racing did keep the draw and earn a point and it probably wouldn’t have happened without Pikkujämsä ‘s sacrifice.

It’s also important to note that this was a red for the last defender denying a direct clear goal-scoring opportunity. Although both players went down it wasn’t a reckless or dangerous tackle and no one was injured. If that had been the case, there’s no question this red would be vastly less palatable.

Lauren Milliet on the ball / Image courtesy USA Today Sports

Small, but Mighty

While Savannah DeMelo deserved all the accolades being thrown her way and Ary Borges needs to be praised for drawing the penalty that ultimately equalized the game, it was really the whole team’s defense that was the star of this match. Even though they got beaten badly early in the match to let Rodman score, the way the team stayed organized defensively after switching into a 4-4-1 and didn’t let themselves get rolled or overwhelmed by the Spirit’s potent attack is by far the most impressive part of the game for Racing.

Carson Pickett, Abby Erceg, and Jaelin Howell all had very strong games, but it was Lauren Milliet who stood out for holding back one of the NWSL’s best attackers for the second straight regular season game. Last week it was Kerolin from North Carolina and this week it was Trinity Rodman from the Spirit. She has developed the ability to run players off the ball very effectively or cut off passing lanes to force them to pass back and/or retreat.

This match is just another example of how Milliet has grown as a defender after spending most of her career as a midfielder and learned how not to get beaten in transition the way she and other players were earlier in the season. All in all, she earned high praise from Erceg who had played with her years ago when they were both at North Carolina, and said she could see just how much Milliet has grown as a player in those intervening years.

“I thought she did really, really well,” said Erceg. “She doesn’t have the stature, but she makes up for it with her aggression and her attitude and her energy.”

Looking Ahead

Next up Racing returns home for another tough match against the San Diego Wave. As of Saturday night, the Wave sit in fourth place, but a win could be enough to propel them all the way up to number one.

Racing has had good results against the Wave overall. The Wave is the last team to never beat Racing in a match. In their previous two match-ups, Racing won the first game at home and then drew the Wave away 0-0 in San Diego.

Despite the fact it’ll be a hard match, Louisville players and staff remain confident about the club’s trajectory. Despite missing some big chances, Racing is still scoring regularly. They’re also finally earning wins and showing the grittiness they need against their toughest opponents. On the team’s new, confident mentality DeMelo said, “I think that’s the difference with this team now. We always are finding a way to get a point or three points. I think that’s how much you’ve seen us grow in the past year, the past couple of months and that’s what’s going to take us forward.”

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.