Hard Lessons: Racing Falls 0-2 in Portland in First Loss of the Season

Racing Louisville’s match against the Portland Thorns on Saturday night couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. By the second minute, the Thorns were already on the board, and Racing’s center-back Elli Pikkujämsä simultaneously went down with a non-contact hamstring injury and had to exit the match. Despite the rough start, Racing was able to play themselves back into the match before giving up a last-second goal during first-half stoppage time. Although Louisville would come back and play a solid second half, the damage was done and the match ended 2-0 and gave Racing their first loss after three consecutive draws to start the season.

“When you start like that – they scored a goal after two minutes – it’s really difficult to play against maybe the best team in the league away,” said coach Kim Björkegren. “It’s disappointing – we gave away some pieces in the game way too easy. I think really we had a chance today. I had a really good feeling. We had good energy in the group.”

As tough of a result as this game might have been, it was hardly a major full-team collapse. As a whole, the team played consistently, held decent possession, and regularly forced Portland into turnovers or earned corner kicks. Instead, this match was doomed by individual mistakes. Both Pikkujämsä and Wang Shuang gave up balls in dangerous areas which led to Portland’s goals. Neither Carson Pickett nor Jaelin Howell was able to get back and either mark Morgan Weaver when she scored the second goal or defend the back post. And, no midfielders came back to help. This left defenders outnumbered far too often and unable to contain Portland’s potent attack.

“It’s a hard lesson,” said defender Abby Erceg after the match. “We’re still learning how to win. We’re still learning how to play against these top teams.”

Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett talk with Katie Lund / Image courtesy Taylor Vincent

By the Numbers

The last time Racing played Portland in Portland in September of 2022, they lost 0-3. Although Saturday’s match only had one less goal, the course of the matches was very different.

In almost every metric Racing has improved significantly. In 2022, Racing only had an xG of 0.31 and Portland 2.96. On Saturday, Racing had an xG of 0.83 compared to Portland’s 1.44. That’s significantly better. Although Portland was able to get 20 shots on Saturday only six were on target. Again, that’s much better than the 29 they had in 2022 with 14 on target. Racing, comparatively, had only seven shots with a single shot on target in 2022 but managed 12 on Saturday with four on target. That’s obviously not good enough, but it is an improvement.

These improvements are apparent elsewhere as well. Last season, Racing had 68% passing accuracy and 43% possession. On Saturday, they had 78% accuracy and 51% possession. Even if you can argue that Portland sat back to a degree and yielded some possession due to holding a lead, that at least means they felt threatened enough by Racing to do so. Last year, the Thorns absolutely dominated possession in the second half, never took their foot off the pedal, and held over 60% of possession in the second half.

During last week’s match against Angel City, Racing panicked in the second half when Angel City started pressing aggressively. They couldn’t figure out how to counteract that and couldn’t ever hold possession enough to earn corner kicks or set pieces. Racing did a much better job under an even more relentless press in the second half against Portland. In the second half against Angel City, they only earned a single corner kick, got off four crosses, and only won possession in the final third once. In the second half against Portland, they earned three corners, got 11 crosses off, and won possession in the final third five times.

In short, this loss to Portland wasn’t a dire loss. Racing absolutely needs to improve their offensive output. The team ranks 11th out of 12 teams in shots for target with 24 or six per 90 minutes. Still, with Uchenna Kanu, Nadia Nadim, and Thembi Kgatlana out with injuries, there’s still room for improvement as they begin to return.

Key Takeaways

High Risk, Not Always High Reward

Racing wants to play an aggressive high press. This is a very high-risk/high-reward strategy which has been illustrated in Racing’s progress so far. They’ve scored incredible goals as a result of the press and quick transition, like Davis’ goal against Angel City last week. But this week, they gave up both goals in transition.

Racing needs to figure out how to defend better in transition or transition faster to make sure attackers get marked. Time after time against Portland, major players like Christine Sinclair or Crystal Dunn were left standing completely unmarked at the top of the box. Noticeably, no midfielders except Howell got back to help defend against the first goal despite the fact Ary Borges had been in-step with goal-scorer Sinclair further up the field when the ball was turned over. Racing’s defenders were outnumbered regularly so the midfield needs to get back and help with defense more if they’re going to be successful.

Image courtesy Taylor Vincent

A Tough Road

Racing has had a particularly hard schedule where they play four top-six teams in their first five games. In fact, NWSL Field of Vision rates Racing’s schedule as the second toughest in the league. In addition to playing the number one Thorns who were last year’s champions, they opened away in Houston and play number two OL Reign next week. Although the Spirit did poorly last season, they were champions in 2021 and so far 2022 seems to have been more of a fluke than the rule and they currently sit in fifth place.

Racing has also been almost entirely on the road with three of their four games away. This not only takes away the home-field advantage, but it’s also exhausting. They were gone for the better part of 10 days for the Los Angeles to Portland stint.

This, of course, isn’t a complete excuse. They need to be able to win both home and away regardless of conditions. Even so, there’s no question this has been a particularly rough opening schedule for Racing and it can, hopefully, help toughen them up a bit as the season moves on.

Looking Ahead

Racing’s schedule won’t get any easier despite the fact they’re home for Saturday’s match. As mentioned, they’ll be playing last year’s shield winners OL Reign who are always a tough team to beat. Most recently, they beat Orlando 5-2, so their offense will punish you if you’re not on top of your game. Racing will have to clean up their transition because if Portland presses hard, OL Reign presses even harder.

Racing has never beaten OL Reign in the regular season, but they did draw them twice in 2022 and beat them 2-0 in the preseason. There’s no question that OL Reign will want to correct that so Racing should expect a very hard game. Hopefully, the anger over losing to Portland will fuel the team to correct their costly mistakes and put together a full, consistent match.

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.