Racing Louisville and the San Diego Wave battled to a nil-nil stalemate on Friday.
For Racing, at least, this game was a defensive showpiece. While neither team was particularly hot in their attack, San Diego had the better chances — even with an unexpectedly absent Alex Morgan — but goalkeeper Katie Lund and the back line, led by center-back Abby Erceg did an excellent job to earn the shutout.
“I thought the game went well,” said Erceg. “Anytime you get a point against these top two or three teams, you’re going to be happy. Defensively we had a really, really strong game.”
At least as of Sunday morning, the San Diego Wave is the top team in the league, so getting a point off them is a big accomplishment. The biggest positive for Racing is that Thembi Kgatlana is finally starting after missing almost a year due to an Achilles injury. Although she hasn’t scored a goal yet, she’s earned assists and often seems like one of the most confident and dynamic forward on the team.
Still, this game, in a nutshell, encompasses Racing’s entire season: Excellent defense, a dynamic and sometimes electric midfield, and an often invisible attack. While San Diego does have one of the most dense and disciplined defenses in the league, Racing has now failed to score in four of their last 11 matches which shows that this is a much bigger problem than this one match.
Even so, this point was hard-earned, and getting at least a point off top teams is what’s going to keep Racing’s playoff chances alive.
“I want to give credit to our team,” Lund said. “They worked their tails off. We ran a lot tonight. We blocked shots and we made it hard for them as well. We learn from this and keep moving forward.”
By the Numbers
Offensively, Racing had only 10 shots in this game which is their lowest total in a single match this season. This is a small bright spot considering that Racing had quite a few games with single-digit numbers of shots in their first two years. San Diego had 15 shots and both teams had only four on target all match. San Diego was considerably more dangerous in generating chances, however, as they earned 1.11 xG to Racing’s paltry 0.55.
Keeper Lund earned her fourth clean sheet of the year. Both keepers had four saves, but Lund was called on to do a bit more work in making them than her counterpart did.
Racing Louisville have attempted 539 passes in this game, their highest total in a single match this season. They also had 88.5% passing accuracy with Erceg having attempted 86 passes in this game, the highest total for a Racing Louisville player this season. This is impressive, except for the fact that it indicates just how much Racing was passing along the backline and failing to find outlets with which to move forward. Racing had almost 55% possession — and at times had well over 60% early on — but were able to do little with it as San Diego was able to control the game effectively off the ball.
Erceg led the defensive line with three aerial duels won, three clearances, and two interceptions. She also had a header that was one of Racing’s few shots on goal, but it went directly to the opposing keeper.
Interestingly, the San Diego Wave has never beaten Racing. In fact, in the teams’ three meetings, only one goal has been scored and that was Savannah DeMelo’s first professional goal back in 2022 and it was off a set piece. So a nil-nil draw shouldn’t have been too surprising and, according to head coach Kim Björkegren, it wasn’t.
“The game was more or less exactly how I was thinking it would be when we prepared for it,” Björkegren said. “[San Diego] is really organized – good defense, difficult to create chances against them. But I think, for us, we did a good job on defense. There weren’t so many goal chances for us, but not for them, either, so it’s a fair result.”
Stuck in the Middle with You
This extra point also provides a buffer for Racing that will probably keep them from losing much, if any, ground in the standings. Racing is currently in eighth place and all teams below them have lost this weekend with the exception of the Orlando Pride who have the tough task of playing the Thorns on Sunday evening. The Pride are two points behind Racing so even a draw wouldn’t bring them level and would keep Racing in 8th place.
Moving up the standings remains a challenge, though. As of Sunday morning, they are five points or two wins out of playoff contention. If Houston wins on Sunday, it’ll be five points just to get up to seventh.
In short, Racing remains mired firmly in the lower middle of the pack. They haven’t lost much ground, but they can’t get results to push them any higher. With exactly half the season now behind them, are they going to be able to still make a push for the playoffs?
We’re Halfway There
At this point last season, Racing Louisville had 10 points and a 2-5-4 record. This season, they have 12 points 2-3-6 record. (NOTE: I have since deleted an incorrect tweet that stated they had 11 points in 11 games last season. I was wrong, so I apologize. This is what I get for trying to do even simple math on my phone at night with a 100-degree fever.)
The two points in difference between the seasons aren’t huge by any means, but it does signify two fewer losses.
These stats essentially show us exactly what the eye test has been telling us all season: This is definitely a better team, but not a spectacularly better team.
The goal differential is the starkest improvement between the years with a positive six-goal difference between 2022 and 2023. This is almost entirely defensive, however. Racing had scored 13 goals at this point in 2022 but had given up 18. (Ouch.) In seven of 11 games, opponents had scored multiple goals on Racing, and Racing had only earned two shutouts. In 2022, Racing has again scored 13 goals, but they’ve only given up 12. Opponents have only scored multiple goals against Racing in five of 11 games and, as stated earlier, they’ve already earned four shutouts.
So, in short, they are no longer bleeding goals, but they’ve had absolutely no improvement in goal scoring.
Living on a Prayer?
With so little improvement, it’s a hard path for Racing to earn a playoff spot, but it’s also not completely out of reach.
Eleven games into last season, Racing was almost halfway through a painful 13-game winless streak. Although they earned four draws in the remaining seven games of that streak, it kept them so low in points that even three wins in four games at the very end of the season could only raise them to ninth place.
Racing does not seem to be on the same trajectory this season, although time will tell if that’s true. Racing took longer to win two games this season, but they’ve also performed better before and after those wins, as well. After all, a strong defense will turn some losses into draws, but without a stronger offense, those draws won’t often turn into wins.
Racing does not have the luxury of dropping any games at this point. This is probably the most obvious statement on the planet, but if they’re going to stay within a fighting chance of a playoff spot, they need to win games. Draws will help them tread water, but they won’t move them up the standings.
It’s this point in the year when we see just how much those earlier ties with OL Reign and Angel City really hurt Racing. If Racing had gotten two more points from each, they’d be at 16 points and in seventh place. They’d only be one point away from a playoff spot. Even two more points from one of those games would have put them within one game of a playoff spot instead of two. So without those extra points, the long reach to the playoffs is even longer.
Next up Louisville will play the Houston Dash on Wednesday. This will be the first time these teams meet in the Challenge Cup, although they have already played to a scoreless draw to open the regular season.
If the playoffs in the regular season are starting to get further away, Racing remains in a solid position to make some moves in the Challenge Cup. It’s no secret that Racing is choosing to play with the goal of reaching the semi-finals in this tournament. They’re rotating players, but doing so less than other teams. And, of course, it helps that two of the bottom teams in the league are in Racing’s division and Houston is only currently one spot ahead of them in the standings. Racing knows this is a winnable division and is clearly focusing on this as a chance to get some hardware or at least some morale-boosting wins and maybe some bonus money from reaching the semifinals.
Although Houston is above Racing in the regular season standings, they’ve scored significantly fewer goals. Houston has only scored nine goals in 10 games while Racing has scored 13 in the same number of matches. If Racing can at least earn a draw against Houston, they’ll remain solidly on top of the central division in the Challenge Cup. As long as Houston doesn’t win by three goals, Racing would stay on top based on goal differential, but that would be cutting it awfully close.
The other interesting thing about these teams is both are set to keep most of their key personnel during the World Cup, when most of the Challenge Cup will be played. Houston won’t be losing Diana Ordóñez, María Sánchez, or Ebony Salmon. Racing most likely won’t be losing Savannah DeMelo and also won’t lose Jaelin Howell or any of their defenders. So it’s possible that both of these teams could have a very good shot at making some serious progress in the tournament. Wednesday night will be the first of two matches between teams with some of the best chances to make the Challenge Cup playoffs.