Racing Louisville’s playoff hopes diminish with 0-1 loss to Houston Dash

Disappointment Abounds

Racing Louisville’s bid to make the regular season playoffs for the first time when they fell 0-1 against Houston Dash on Friday night.

With the standings tighter than they’ve ever been in the decade-plus National Women’s Soccer League’s history and less than a handful of games left to play, this was a must-win for Racing. But instead of coming out like the gritty, determined team fans saw last week when they racked up big wins against the Portland Thorns and OL Reing, Racing came out flat and disconnected.

After the match, defender Abby Erceg didn’t hold back about the team’s performance.

“I thought we were extremely poor tonight,” said the defender, who wore the captain’s armband with Jaelin Howell out with an injury. “You know, when you’re pushing for a playoff spot and you put in a performance like that, you’re just not going to make it. We played as individuals. We stopped playing as a team. There was a lack of effort. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for us in terms of how we played as a team, so it’s really disappointing.”

As a result of this match, Racing goes into Saturday remaining in seventh place. However, by not getting a single point, they run the risk of dropping to eighth or ninth depending on how Angel City or the Orlando Pride perform. At least with the two teams directly above them — NJ/NY Gotham and the Washington Spirit — playing each other, the sixth playoff berth can’t get too far ahead of them in points, but there’s no question Racing will now likely need to win every single one of their remaining three games to have a chance at crossing that boundary.

“Overall I’m disappointed, disappointed with the result, and also I think we can do better – even if I think we created enough chances to score maybe one or two goals,” said head coach Kim Björkegren. “We talked about how nine points will probably be enough to make the playoffs, and with three games left, we can still do it. Right now, I’m just disappointed because I think we had a great chance to do something better today but we didn’t.”

Abby Erceg / Image courtesy the NWSL, Jordan Prather

By the Numbers

Note: All stats are from PressBox Live by Opta

Ultimately, this was an extremely evenly matched game across almost every metric.

In xG (Louisville: 1.43; Houston: 1.21), in shots (Louisville: 17; Houston: 19), shots on goal (Louisville: 6; Houston: 5), possession (Louisville 53%), and passing accuracy (Louisville: 79%; Houston: 76%) the teams were essentially only a hair’s breadth apart.

Even defensively, each team won approximately 50% of all duels and aerial duels, with similar numbers of tackles, and interceptions.

This extreme evenness in performance is exactly why Erceg is justifiably so disappointed. Racing has been the better team this season having only lost four games this season prior to this match compared to Houston’s six. This match ended a six-game unbeaten streak for Racing while it was Houston’s first win in 10 games. The very fact it was so balanced shows that Racing wasn’t overplayed even if they were tired from having played in the Challenge Cup finals last week.

Even more damning is the fact that this was only Racing’s second loss at home all season. Lynn Family Stadium has been a fortress for Louisville this season, so all other things being even, they should have been able to find the edge and pull out a win.

Key Takeaways

Fatigue and Formation Changes

So why did Racing give such an uninspired performance last night? How did a team that beat the top team in the standings last week fall to a team well below them in the standings this week?

The easiest explanation is to assume that Racing was just tired from their big week last week. After playing three top teams last week and looking gassed in the Challenge Cup final, it’s fair to assume they just didn’t have any gas left in the tank, right?

Not so, said Erceg.

“I don’t think it’s tired legs,” said the defender after last night’s match. “We’ve had a week to recover from the Challenge Cup and it’s been business as usual, so that’s not an excuse. I think, honestly, it was just on effort and that’s really disappointing for us.”

Erceg did concede that mental fatigue could have played a role and said that losing in the Challenge Cup final definitely is something the team had to contend with, but, “It’s professional sports, man. You gotta turn up every game.”

Another factor that’s certainly impacted the team is the constant formation shifting that’s been happening due to injury and player availability. This match saw yet another brand-new starting lineup for the club along the back line and the front line. Starting with the backline, Maddie Pokorny stepped in as an outer back to replace Rebecca Holloway who sustained a hamstring injury last Saturday. Holloway herself is a replacement for Carson Pickett who’s been out with a calf injury.

This is not a position Pokorny’s played before, save for when she went in for the injured Holloway last Saturday, so it’s an understatement to say she had to contend with a major learning curve. Pokorny did put in a solid shift even if it was clear she wasn’t fully comfortable in her role and Erceg did commend her for her performance. Still, Erceg did comment that she had to coach Pokorny through the defensive warmups ahead of the game which raises questions about just how prepared Pokorny was to step into this new role.

On the front line, Racing opted to start Nadia Nadim centrally and play Kirsten Davis and Thembi Kgatlana out on the wings. While Davis has been strong lately and earned the game-winner that got Racing into the Challenge Cup final, she’s not typically someone who plays out wide. She’s strongest in the center of the pitch. And while Nadim is historically a superstar striker, has she done enough in her few games back from injury to warrant bumping Davis out wide and pushing Paige Monaghan off the starting roster?

Racing created a good number of chances last night. In fact, they earned the higher xG, but one reason they failed to get a goal is in part because their forwards weren’t optimally positioned. A half dozen crosses or more went off with no player waiting at the far post to collect the cross or a deflection. This has historically been an issue with Racing, but one that has gotten better consistently this year thanks in large part to Monaghan. When Monaghan and Pickett did get subbed in, the energy improved immensely on the field and Racing did create a number of late chances. This isn’t to say that the previous players failed in any way, but it does raise questions about if Racing was in the best position to succeed.

Maddie Pokorny / Image courtesy David Mucker

Set Up for Success?

The biggest big-picture question facing Racing right now is: how do they take the next step forward and become a playoff team? There’s no question they’ve taken some major strides this season, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ve gone about as far as they can go under the current circumstances.

Of all the issues Racing faces with injuries and roster depth, it’s clear at this point that coaching is something that needs to be looked at closely. There’s also been a consistent struggle to adjust to in-game when things don’t go as planned. Look, for instance, at all the two-goal leads this season that ended up in draws. And so often games have devolved to just attempting to lob the ball forward in the hopes that Kgatlana or another forward can reach it.

Additionally, there’s no question that Björkegren would rather play players he prefers out of position even if there are players on the bench who specialize in that needed position. As said above, Pokorny did a good enough job, but it also wasn’t her job to do. Davis is a very effective player and could be the team’s future No. 9, but is she more effective than Monaghan out wide? Maybe in time, she could be, but the team is in a very tight playoff push and Monaghan is right there.

All in all, Racing is making a lot of the same mistakes and falling into the same patterns too late in the season for a team that’s in a playoff push. This match against Houston was one of the biggest in the team’s history and they came out far too flat. At a certain point, effort and skill can only get a team so far and they seem to be lacking that extra motivation that can get them over the line. Whether this is entirely Björkegren’s fault or not is debatable, but the fact of the matter is that he’s the one in charge, and when the team underperforms it’s on him. The team has progressed this season, there’s no question about it, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ve gone as far as they can under their current leadership.

Looking Ahead

After a brief international break, Racing next heads to Chicago to take on the Red Stars. While every one of their last four or five matches has been called a must-win, this one absolutely is a must-win for several reasons. Obviously, they need the three points. In fact, Racing likely needs all nine points from their final three matches to keep their playoff hopes alive.

More importantly, though, this is a team that Racing can beat. Chicago has lingered at or near the bottom of the standings all season. If Racing beats them, they would get their first sweep of a team across all competition in a season — four wins across four games.

If they lose, however, it’s safe to say that Racing’s season is essentially over. Losing to or even drawing a nearly bottom-of-the-table team while on the cusp of playoffs would be a massive failure. Even if they weren’t mathematically eliminated, they would have to take a hard look at how this team will move forward into their next season now instead of waiting until the off-season.

The good news for Racing is that Pickett is back and Jaelin Howell should be back as well. It’s possible Holloway might also have enough time to at least serve as a backup, too. Hopefully, with some of these players back in the lineup, Racing can find some of the consistency they’ve been lacking to help carry them into the post-season after all.

 

Author

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.