“All I remember is running and jumping on Jae [Howell],” remarked a grinning Carson Pickett after Racing Louisville’s Friday night’s match. “Just being so excited we finally got three points. We’ve been there. We’ve been up, we’ve been down, tied a lot of games, and now we finally did it.”
Pickett had every reason to be thrilled as Racing Louisville finally broke through to earn their first win of the season in a 3-0 drubbing of the visiting Chicago Red Stars. This win ends a six-game winless streak that had seen Racing remain the last team in the league without a win.
This isn’t to say Racing has played that poorly, however. Their four points from four draws are the most points ever earned by a team in the NWSL through six winless games. So they’ve been knocking on the door consistently, they just didn’t figure out how to get in until Friday.
“Every player performed today,” said midfielder Savannah DeMelo of what made this game different from others. Starters, substitutes, everyone kept relentless pressure on Chicago which buoyed their confidence and allowed them the finally play a complete match. “Everyone contributed today and I think that’s the difference. That’s what we’re going to need moving forward.”
In the first half, Racing’s constant pressure yielded two penalty kicks for Racing. The first, taken by DeMelo in the 35th minute, hit the post and bounced off Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher in what was ultimately billed as an own goal. In first-half stoppage time, Wang Shuang stepped up to take the second and converted it making her the first Chinese national to score in the NWSL.
In the second half, both teams came out strongly, but even though the Chicago Red Stars improved, Racing did even better. In the 89th minute, two substitutes connected for the third goal when Thembi Kgatlana charged forward and passed to Parker Goins who worked her way out of some poor tackles and scored her first NWSL goal to hammer home Racing’s win.
“We want to be a top-six team that can fight for the final in the end,” said head coach Kim Björkegren. “You have to start to win. We can’t just talk about good performances. A super important three points.”
By the Numbers
Racing dominated this match from beginning to end by almost every metric. They had 16 shots with 11 on target and an xG of 2.65. This is the highest number of shots on goal and the highest xG Racing has achieved all season. Comparatively, the Chicago Red Stars had 12 shots, four on goal, and an xG of 0.74. It is worth noting that 1.6 of Racing’s xG came from their two penalties leaving 1.05 generated during the run of play. The fact that Racing generated more xG in the run of play than Chicago is a sign of just how well everything worked over the course of the match.
Chicago did have more possession this match with 56.6%, but Racing managed to stymie much of Chicago’s forward momentum so even if they had more possession, Racing was still able to control the match.
Racing was able to sustain close to 80% passing accuracy across both halves. Captain Jaelin Howell had another sharp game with 94% passing accuracy and the third most touches of Racing’s players. Ary Borges likewise had excellent accuracy with just under 94% accuracy herself and had the fourth most touches.
— Arielle Dror (@arielle_dror) May 13, 2023
The effectiveness of the press is demonstrated in the number of duels and duels won by Racing players – particularly the attackers. Wang Shuang had 12 duels and won seven of them, Uchenna Kanu and Savannah DeMelo each had 11 with Kanu winning six and DeMelo four. This is a nice turnaround from the Orlando game when Kanu and Wang failed to find their way into the game and make much of an impact. DeMelo, of course, was out with a red card.
Defensively, Howell continues to be in excellent form and had the most duels of both teams (14) and won half of them. She has won back possession 10 times – the most of anyone on Racing. Howell also had more interceptions than any player on either team with three.
After two rocky games, Katie Lund again looked like her cool, collected self in goal. She made four saves on the night to earn the shutout while her counterpart Alyssa Naeher was forced to make nine saves to keep Racing from doing more damage.
Despite playing hard teams early on like the Houston Dash, Washington Spirit, Portland Thorns, and OL Reign, Racing currently has a goal differential of zero. They have currently given up nine goals and scored nine goals. Considering they led the league in goals conceded in their first year and had one of the worst goal differentials in the league last year, this is a good sign and shows just how much they’ve been in their first handful of matches.
Goal differential has always been an unpleasant stat for Racing, so this is better. They haven’t had a positive goal differential yet, but they also haven’t had much of a sustained negative one. This isn’t too surprising considering Racing has earned so many draws this year and only lost twice by fairly tight margins, but goal differential is a key tie-breaker for teams with the same number of points. And considering six teams in the NWSL currently have negative goal differentials – including three teams currently above Racing in the standings – this might be an area Racing can actually have an advantage in.
On Friday, everything truly came together for Racing because they truly played together like a unit for the first time. Everyone pressed together and then everyone sat back and defended as a unit as well. The pressure they were able to put on Chicago led directly to both penalties. Racing’s attackers actually got forward enough to flood the box and, in some cases, outnumber their defenders which is something they’ve struggled with for years. This game could have easily been 4-0 or 5-0 against a goalkeeper other than Naeher who bailed her team out on numerous occasions.
Racing also had the best-looking, compact defensive formation we’ve possibly ever seen from them. Think back to the match against Portland when the Thorns would often have two more attackers in the box than Racing had defenders. That gave defenders like Abby Erceg impossible choices on who to cover which left gaps that were easily exploited. Meanwhile against Chicago, Carson Pickett was often back next to Erceg by the time an attacker got near the box, and the rest of Racing’s midfielders and defenders – including midfielders like DeMelo and Ary Borges who’d failed to come back and defend during Portland – were close behind. As a result, Chicago got off a decent number of shots but only managed a few on target because Racing did such a good job of cutting off their options.
There’s no question Racing did extremely well this match, but it’s also clear Chicago is struggling defensively. They gave Racing way too much space to operate between their midfield and defensive lines and it’s clear their three-back defense isn’t doing them any favors. So while there’s no question Racing performed very well, they’ll need to prove that they can keep this level of performance up against tougher opponents who are faster and more organized defensively.
The good news is Racing has shown they have the potential. They managed to control the match against OL Reign quite well for the vast majority and even held their own against Portland for sustained periods of time. Racing has gotten draws out of the top two teams in the standings, the Washington Spirit and OL Reign. They are a team that can be dangerous and now that they’ve gotten over the hump and earned three points, they can take the feeling of what it takes to win and carry it over into their next matches.
With this win, Racing has moved up from 11th place to ninth place in the standings. While the majority of the table remains very tight, Racing will need to start getting three points with some regularity if they’re going to work their way up to the midpoint or beyond. Because as wonderful as this match against Chicago was, it means nothing if Racing can’t keep it up.
Racing has another lower-half-of-the-table team to play next in Kansas City. The Current inherited Racing’s 11th-place spot and has six points in two wins and five losses. Based on Kansas City’s form, Racing should have a good shot at beating them. And they’ll have two chances with the Current coming to Louisville on Wednesday to play Racing’s first Challenge Cup match and then Racing traveling to Kansas City for a regular season match on Saturday.
This short turnaround will hopefully work in Racing’s favor. They’ve played their best at home and will have positive momentum on their side. Racing still has something of a depth problem, however, especially with injuries to players like Nadia Nadim and Emina Ekic. How Racing decides to navigate that issue and rotate players will be interesting because, on the one hand, they probably want to capitalize as much as possible on the home-field advantage to start a winning streak on Wednesday. On the other, the regular season game on Saturday is more important in the long run.
Kansas City isn’t a bad team either despite their number of losses. They have potent attackers like Debinha and Cece Kizer who can easily punish teams who aren’t on the ball defensively. Their defense, however, has been porous, so if Racing can continue their trend of scoring multiple goals a game, that will certainly be beneficial. It’s a particularly good sign that Racing was able to pull in the third goal against Chicago because it shows they didn’t need penalties to beat the Red Stars. They’ll need that same level of energy and consistency to get results in the coming week.
Racing has spent the first third of the season so close to breaking through. Now it’s up to them to show it wasn’t a fluke and that they’ve actually turned the corner into becoming a winning team.