Racing Louisville stun Portland to rally for a huge 2-1 win!

Heart and Grit

The Portland Thorns gave Racing Lousiville a fat lip early on Saturday after a defensive lapse gave up a goal in only the sixth minute. Although they lost their footing for a bit, Racing came back swinging and scored two goals in four minutes in the second half to seal the win. First, Abby Erceg headed in a cross off of a corner from Wang Shuang in the 60th minute. Next, Thembi Kgatlana sent in a blast through traffic in the 64th minute off of an assist from Rebecca Holloway.

On the importance of this win, defender and goal scorer Ereceg said it was huge. “Everyone is desperate for points – the table is so close – so for the girls to show up the way they did today was unbelievable. It was at the right time, a huge performance. I haven’t seen us play with that much grit and heart. You can tell that the girls really want it.”

It’s not hyperbolic to call this the biggest win in Racing Louisville’s history. Not only did they beat the current number one team in the league for the first time in two-and-a-half years, but they also scored multiple goals against them for the first time, essentially dominated them, and did it without four key players and a critical back-up player. While Portland was definitely missing Sophia Smith and Becky Sauerbrunn, the fact Racing was without Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell, Carson Pickett, Nadia Nadim, and Jordan Baggett should have arguably weakened them even more. But, instead, Racing came out and played with an immense amount of heart and grit, as Erceg said. And as a result, they’re well in the playoff running as well.

“It shows the potential–that we can beat all the teams in the league,” said head coach Kim Björkegren. “I think this is the first time Racing actually won against Portland so it shows we’re getting closer to the best teams and on a good day like this we can beat them.”

Playoff Watch

If their playoff chances seemed to be slipping away last week, they’re back in the running better than ever after this match.

Going into this match, Racing was in ninth place after Angel City’s win against Kansas City on Friday pushed them further down the standings. Racing has been calling their games must-wins for the past three weeks but only pulled draws, so it was easy to see all the ways this match could go wrong with so many key players out.

According to Erceg, who wore the captain’s armband with Howell out injured, the players knew this and came out ready to fight. “I said to them before we went out, ‘Our season is on the line. How many games do you want to play? It’s up to us.’ They came out and they showed up.”

As a result of this win, Racing at least temporarily goes up to a playoff berth in sixth place — the first time they’ve ever achieved a playoff position this late in the season. Unfortunately, there are no situations in which they won’t fall to seventh on Sunday, though, with OL Reign playing the Orlando Pride. OL Reign goes into Sunday directly below Racing, equal to them in points with 24, with Racing only ahead via goal differential. Orlando is in ninth with 22 points. So no matter what happens, one team will go ahead. A draw or win will put OL Reign ahead and an OL Reign loss will put Orlando ahead.

With standings so close, the players aren’t sweating the fact their flirtation with playoffs will be brief this week. The fact that they proved they can get points off the top teams is what matters.

“Oh, that’s only temporary,” said Erceg of their current playoff position. “There are games tomorrow. It’s so close. You can’t think you’re in until the last game of the season. I think if you start counting your chickens too early it’s not gonna go your way. It’s way too close.”

By the Numbers

This was arguably Racing’s most dominant performance all season and, once again, the fact they managed this without four major players is stunning.

By the end of the first half, Racing had a jaw-dropping 18 shots with four on target. Their xG in just the first 45 was 1.35 which is higher than they managed in their entire match against Angel City. Conversely, by the end of the first half, Portland only had seven shots with two on target — and yet Portland was the team with the goal.

By the end of full time, Racing had 1.94 in xG with 26 shots and 9 on goal. This isn’t their highest xG of the season, but it’s close. Portland, in comparison, had 15 shots and four on target with an xG of 1.14.

Portland had a bit of an edge on possession with 54%. Defensively, however, the teams were surprisingly even. Both teams won essentially 50% of the duels, each won eight tackles, and each had 10 interceptions. These are good numbers for Racing considering Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo were out.

As far as player standouts, Ary Borges had herself a game with the most touches of any player on either team (70), the most passes (50) and the most accurate passes (38) for Racing. She had the most duels of any player on either team (11) and won the most (8), too. And she also had the most tackles (4) of anyone on Racing and the most interceptions (3) of any player.

Offensively, Thembi Kgatlana was also a standout. She had eight shots with three on target. She also had double the touches inside the opposition’s box (12) than any other player on either team. She also had the most dribbles of any player.

Racing Louisville has now won 9 points from losing positions, more than any other team.

In a final cool, point, Racing had players from different global federations score and assist in every goal. Wang Shuang from the Asian Football Federation assisted Abby Erceg from the Oceania Football Federation and Rebecca Holloway from UEFA assisted Thembi Kgatlana from the Confederation of African Football. A lot has been made of how global Racing Louisville is and this game absolutely demonstrated that.

Key Takeaways

Historic Territory

Historically, this is the most points Racing has ever had. This is also the fastest they’ve ever gotten to five wins. In fact, Racing has never won more than five games in a season so they’re in great shape moving forward.  In 2021, they ended the season with 22 points in 24 games with a 5-12-7 record. In 2022, they ended the season with 23 points and a 5-9-8 record in 22 games. With four games left to play in 2023, Racing has 24 points and a 5-4-9 record across 18 games.

If San Diego wins today, they’ll move into first place but Racing will only be six points out of first place. If San Diego loses, the Thorns will remain in first and Racing will still only be six points out from first. That’s a remarkably good position to be in.

For the first two years, Racing’s poor performance in light of being an expansion team with extensive player and coaching turnover was more forgivable. In this third year, however, the time for those concessions has run out. So the fact that Racing is finally showing that they can be a dominant team that can beat the best in the league and they’re finally getting the points that show that, is exactly what fans need to see.

As bright as these changes are, however, there are still some issues that still can’t be ignored.

Can’t Quite Find the Finish

It’s hard to be critical in a game as huge as this one, but the fact of the matter is, this game could have easily been 5-1 in Racing’s favor. Especially in the early first half of the match, they had a plethora of chances that pinged off the crossbar or were just flat out missed. The forwards on Racing need to be more clinical if this team is going to continue to advance. A lack of finishing is the number one thing that has been holding this team back and even in this game it was a problem.

Luckily for Racing, their defense has been strong enough to earn them points even when the finishing isn’t there, but that’s not good enough. Those nine draws from earlier in the season are stinging a bit more as Racing remains on the cusp of playoffs without staying over the line. Just one win out of those nine draws — three of which Racing surrendered after going up by two goals — would have given them a strong chance to go into next week solidly in sixth. If they’d won all three of the draws where they surrendered their leads, they’d have ended Saturday in first place with 30 points. Yes, that’s right, first place.

Of course, giving up the leads isn’t totally an offensive problem but the bottom line is there have been plenty of games where Racing had more than enough chances to put games away and didn’t and that is continuing to haunt them. But if they’ve truly found their footing, maybe there’s still time to learn from their mistakes and continue to gain ground in the playoff race.

Looking Ahead

While most of the league goes into a two-week break, Racing is one of four teams to advance to the Challenge Cup semifinals. On Wednesday, they take on OL Reign in Seattle for a chance to fight for their first-ever league hardware. The fact Racing has made it to the semis is a big deal for a team that’s never made league knockout games before and OL Reign will be a tough opponent.

In their two regular season matchups this year, OL Reign and Racing have played to two 2-2 draws and, in both games, OL Reign scored late goals to equalize and kill Racing’s lead. If there is ever a time to prove that they’ve learned from past mistakes and can hold onto wins it’s this match. In some ways, this semifinal is a chance for Racing to put some of these early season demons to rest and prove, as Saturday’s Thorns game did, that they’re capable of taking on and winning against any team in the league.

In better news for Racing, they’re certain to have DeMelo back. It’s hopeful that Howell, Nadim, and Baggett will also be available as well. Pickett seems a bit more uncertain, but just having the midfield back to the typical starters will be a huge boon for the team.

If Racing wins in Seattle, they will quickly advance to play either Kansas City in Kansas City or the Courage in North Carolina on Saturday. The team has made it clear that this year just making playoffs isn’t enough — they’re here to win. If they can show the same heart, grit, and belief in themselves that they did on Saturday, they will have a very good chance at bringing home their first hardware by this time next week.

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.