Racing Louisville fell 1-0 to the North Carolina Courage on Saturday night in a match heavy on defense and physicality. After holding the Courage off for the majority of the match, small lapses led to Racing conceding a goal in the 73rd minute off a rebound. And although they did create some decent chances, Racing just wasn’t able to put together a threatening enough offense to get an equalizer. Parker Goins came the closest in the 87th minute, but her shot went just wide leaving Racing empty-handed.
“The goal was pretty unfortunate,” said captain Jaelin Howell. “We limited them for the most part. We played pretty well. Obviously, they had most of the possession, but we knew that going into the game. I thought we could’ve been more dangerous in the attacking third. We lacked a little bit of a spark. Definitely better than the last time we played them, but that small detail that led to the goal – we really have to work on that.”
Tactically, Racing focused more on defense and played in a lower block than they typically do. This conceded the vast majority of possession to North Carolina but also kept them from being able to get any decent chances through much of the match. Ultimately, this tactical adjustment worked. A couple of bad giveaways and bad touches put Racing on the back foot in the second half, but it was a coughed-up ball during a save that ultimately lost Racing this game instead of any tactical failure.
“I think we were well prepared,” said head coach Kim Björkegren, “In the last game [against North Carolina in May], we were struggling a little bit with our high press. They were so good in the build-up, so we said to sit back a little bit and I think we did a really good job there. But what can I say? They are a good team in the end of the day they will create some chances. They had a little bit of luck also in the goal I think, but overall I think we did a decent performance.”
It’s hard to find a silver lining in any loss, but the small one here is that Racing continues to have a very solid defense even if their offense continues to struggle.
“I’m proud of the girls,” Howell said. “I thought that we fought really hard and we played a lot better this game than we did the last game against them. It’s just working on that attacking third and finishing. That’s the final piece.”
By the Numbers
This was a game of defense much more than offense. Both teams had very similar and quite limited offensive output. The Courage had 12 shots to Racing’s 10, but both only had two shots on target.
In the first half, Racing had significantly better chances and generated 0.42 xG compared to North Carolina’s 0.03. This flipped in the second half when North Carolina generated 1.1 xG compared to Racing’s 0.2.
North Carolina was extremely effective in limiting Savannah DeMelo from having much of an impact and, as a result, DeMelo had the fewest touches (43) of any outfield player on the pitch who played the full 90 minutes.
In more positive player news, Jaelin Howell continues to be extremely impactful and won the most duels (14) and had the most tackles (5) of anyone in the match. Although she didn’t score, Kirsten Davis created the most chances of anyone in the match with three.
Racing’s Achilles Heel
There are two teams that Racing Louisville has not yet pulled a point from: the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage. While Portland remains a frustrating opponent, it’s ironically North Carolina that is the biggest thorn in Racing’s side.
With this match, Racing has now lost eight of eight matches against North Carolina. In fact, this game is Racing’s first loss across three regular season games and seven across all competition. Their last loss was almost exactly a month ago to none other than the North Carolina Courage. What truly stings, though, is that the Courage has unquestionably handed Louisville their most humiliating defeats in two games with 5-0 and 5-1 in North Carolina’s favor. Both losses were played in Cary, NC.
The good news for Racing is that, even with a frustrating loss, they showed clear signs of progress. The Courage absolutely dominated possession with 60%, but ultimately could do very little with it. Yes, they won the match, but they only had two shots on goal and scored only one. Previous to this match, the Courage has scored three or more goals five times and two goals twice. Put another way, before this match, North Carolina has scored an average of 2.5 goals in Louisville and 4.33 goals in Cary, so limiting them to only a single goal while in Cary is a pretty solid accomplishment. This is an especially good sign because the Courage’s last two matches were a 3-0 win over the Orlando Pride and a 5-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars, so it’s not like they haven’t been on a hot streak.
“I’m really proud of the group,” said Björkegren after the match. They work so hard and I think we keep doing good performances again and again and again. Then, even if we lost the game, we know how tight and close this league is, and it’s difficult to win every single game. So again, I think it’s a decent performance even if we can do things better, but overall I’m proud of our girls.”
A Fine Margin of Error
There are those that will hem and haw over acting like any kind of loss is tolerable to Racing, but the fact of the matter is that as things currently stand, Racing is a middle-of-the-table team. They simply have not shown that they have the offensive firepower necessary to punish stronger teams that dominate in possession. They’re making progress and that should be pointed out and celebrated, but in a league where games are won and lost on the finest margins of error, Racing has not shown that they can score regularly enough against the best teams to keep that margin of error small enough to win consistently. According to Howell, Racing has definitely learned just how fine that margin is in the NWSL.
“I think we know better than anybody,” said Howell, “because a lot of times we fight and we fight and we work hard and you can see our heart and you can see us creating opportunities and us playing really well and then it’s just this final detail that you slip up on and in this league, if you slip up on a detail for one second, they’re going to punish you.”
Howell continued by saying that she is seeing the team make fewer and fewer mistakes and she’s right. On the whole, compared to previous years and even the beginning of this year, Racing is playing much more consistently and reliably overall. But small mistakes are a fact of life because no team is forever going to play perfect matches, so it takes a strong offense to push through and counteract any defense mistakes that might occur.
Racing has not scored in five of their 13 games played this season. Only the Orlando Pride and the Houston Dash have scored in fewer matches than Racing. Interestingly, last year, Racing had only failed to score in three of their first 13 matches so this is a regression to some extent. In 2022, Racing had scored 14 goals by this time of the season and this year Racing has scored 15. That’s an improvement so negligible that it’s essentially non-existent.
Defensively, Racing has conceded 13 goals this season, so an average of a goal a game. Last year, Racing had already conceded 20 for an average of 1.5 goals per game, so that’s a significant improvement. Therefore, it’s clear that Racing continues to be a markedly better team defensively, they’re just not scoring regularly enough to earn the wins that are necessary to climb the standings.
Racing will remain in eighth place in the standings for another week thanks to the Orlando Pride losing to the Kansas City Current. Even if the Chicago Red Stars win, they won’t have the points to climb past Racing and if Angel City wins, they’ll tie Racing in points but need to score over eight goals to break the goal differential between the two teams.
With this loss to the Courage, Racing’s win against Gotham becomes even more important in retrospect because it’s keeping them in the playoff conversation by a thread. If Gotham beats Chicago this week or the Houston Dash beat Angel City, that coveted sixth-place playoff berth will move a minimum of five points away from Racing. This makes it increasingly harder for Racing to make up the ground necessary to climb higher in the table with only nine games left in the regular season.
Just as importantly, the teams below Racing in the standing are getting dangerously close to surpassing them. Goal differentials are keeping some of the lower teams at bay, but only for a single game. As a result, Racing’s next match against OL Reign in Seattle is an absolute must-win for Racing – more so than any match has been yet this year.
The World Cup is almost here and, as a result, teams are going to be losing lots of players starting this week. The United States, Canada, and Brazil are the teams that will impact Saturday’s game against OL Reign the most, as all these teams are calling their players in this week.
For Racing, they’ll be losing Savannah DeMelo and Ary Borges. While that might seem dire for Racing, OL Reign is losing Rose Lavelle, Meghan Rapinoe, Emily Sonnett, Alana Cook, Sophia Huerta, and Jordyn Huitema at a minimum. Lavelle has been out due to injury, but all the others are pivotal for Seattle. Even better for Racing is the fact that they will keep Uchenna Kanu, Wang Shuang, and Thembi Kgatlana for at least this match, so Racing will be far less depleted than their opponents will.
There’s no question this will still be a hard match for Racing, but they have historically played well against OL Reign. Their past three meetings in the regular season have all been draws. In the preseason, however, Racing played against OL Reign’s heavily rotated squad that was likely lined up close to how they’ll look on Saturday. Racing won that match 2-0. While DeMelo did start that game, the scoring only started when Kayla Fischer was substituted in for DeMelo and Kgatlana had not yet returned from injury, so even a rotated Racing squad did well.
Of course, preseason isn’t the regular season and Elyse Bennett and Bethany Balcer have proven to be scoring threats. Still, as shown above, Racing’s defense has been solid. If they’re going to win this game, they’ll have to take advantage of Seattle’s depleted defense due to the absence of Sonnett, Cook, and Huerta.
To keep in the playoff run, it’s absolutely critical that Racing gets all three points from this match. A draw might keep them barely ahead of a couple of teams below them, but a loss might be too much of an injury to overcome. Three points wouldn’t likely move them up the standings except to seventh place at absolute best, but it would keep the playoffs at least in sight and not completely out of reach.
After OL Reign, Racing plays Kansas City followed by Angel City in the regular season. Both of these games will be played during the World Cup and Racing will be the team likely missing the most players in both cases. Even though both these teams are below Racing in the standings – and will remain that way for at least another week – they aren’t games to be taken lightly.
As a result, it’s not just the OL Reign game that’s a must-win. All these games are pivotal for Racing and may very well determine their fate in the off-season. Should Racing win them all, they might play their way into a playoff berth. Should Racing lose or draw at least two of these games, the playoffs might become too far away for them to make up ground. Once again, it’ll be the team with the smallest margin of error that wins the match. Whether it’s clinical finishing or cleaner defending, Racing will need to play the most consistent games of their career over this next month if they’re going to reach the potential they’ve shown all season.