Racing Louisville dropped the ball on Saturday night in a 0-1 loss to the Orlando Pride.
“The first half was one of the worst we have had, at least this year,” said coach Kim Björkegren after the match. “Super disappointed over the energy. We want to be a team that works with a high press, a lot of energy, difficult to play against – and we showed the opposite today.”
This was a surprisingly poor performance from a team who drew the Washington Spirit, came close to beating OL Reign, and at least gave the Portland Thorns a run for their money. As of Saturday night, all three of these previous opponents are top three teams. By comparison, heading into Saturday night’s game, the Orlando Pride was the last-place team in the standings. After this loss, it’s Racing who briefly fell into that last-place spot before Chicago lost to Gotham and bumped Racing up to 11th based on goal differential. It’s never good when teams aren’t in control of their own destiny, but it’s especially bad when you have to rely on other teams’ failures to keep you from last place.
For much of the match, Racing played sluggishly and with low energy. Play was discombobulated and no one seemed to be on the same page. The Pride didn’t look particularly dangerous or hot either, but Racing was ineffective enough that a bad clearance led to a shot that caught Katie Lund too far out of goal and she was unable to tip it over the net. Although defensive mistakes are what lost this game, the team was very unconvincing in attack. They never managed to put any sustained pressure on Orlando’s keeper and the forwards were invisible for large swaths of the game. Instead, play broke down into individual efforts with Wang Shuang, Ary Borges, and Carson Pickett, of all people, taking shots whenever possible just to try and build back some momentum. Although substitutes Alex Chidiac and Kirsten Davis did help pick up the pace in the second half, Captain Jaelin Howell said the team’s inability to put out a consistent performance is what killed them.
“I think that’s the most frustrating part – in the first half, we came out really slow. They got an opportunity, and we dug ourselves a hole. Second half, we looked good for the most part, but it was already too late. It’s just the same thing – a 90-minute performance. It’s fairly early in the season, but we need to get results – period.”
By the Numbers
The statistics and scoreline only partially tell the storyline of this game. It was a relatively close match and ultimately it was only a single goal separating the sides. Based on the eye test, however, it was utterly clear that Racing was not playing even remotely to the level they have performed at previously this season.
Despite this being their worst performance via the eye test, Racing actually led in numerous categories in this match. Louisville held the most possession all game with nearly 53% in both halves, they just failed to do much with it. They also had more shots than Orlando (17 to the Pride’s 16) while both teams had seven shots on goal. The quality of those shots, however, is where the difference is found. With one fewer shot and the same number on target, the Pride generated 1.76 xG while Racing managed only 0.99. In other words, Orlando almost doubled Racing’s expected goals with nearly the same number of shots and an identical number of shots on goal.
Racing also had a very good passing accuracy. They had 80% to Orlando’s 76%, but this is probably inflated a bit by a lot of passing around the back and switching sides in the attack.
Statistically, it’s clear Racing had a better second half. After getting hammered by corners in the first half with Orlando earning eight to Racing’s two, Racing proved more dangerous in the build-up in the second half and earned five to Orlando’s one. Racing also put in 21 crosses to Orlando’s 14 with the most notable part being that the Pride only managed a single cross in the second half while Racing managed 12. Despite this improved build-up, however, Racing only generated 0.39 xG in the second half. All their work to build up plays went virtually nowhere as chances were wasted on poor shots from distance and weak attempts – if a shot was even attempted at all. Needless to say, Racing should not be working this hard and getting nowhere. There’s a real attacking issue that the club needs to address because build-ups have been fizzling out far too often in the final third for Racing to remain dangerous.
It’s never an ideal sign when defender Carson Pickett ties attacking players as a leader in shots taken. Racing uses outer backs offensively and as great as it is that Pickett is free to take chances when they present themselves, she has a single goal in the NWSL in eight years. She should not be equalling Ary Borges and Wang Shuag in shots taken and beating Wang in shots on target. Even though Kirsten Davis only played a single half, Pickett should not be beating her in expected goals generated. Paige Monaghan didn’t have a single shot all match despite playing the full first half. The fact Pickett felt the need to do it herself speaks to how disorganized and ineffective the offense was in this match. She also created the most chances of anyone on either team with five.
Despite earning an early yellow and looking frustrated enough to earn a second by the end of the first half, Jaelin Howell had a good game and kept her emotions in check enough to come out without a red card. She blew everyone else on both teams away in duels (18) and duels won (13). Both Messiah Bright and Marta of the Orlando Pride had 16 duels, but Bright only won eight and Marta five meaning Howell nearly doubled the wins of her next closest opponent. Howell also dominated both teams in tackles (10) and tackles won (6). The next highest was her former College Cup nemesis Mikayla Cluff (nee Colohan) who made five tackles and won three.
So Close, So Far Away
Racing remains the only team in the league without a win and the season is now over 25% complete. While there’s still plenty of time to turn the tide, this is a very poor position for a mid-season push.
All season, the mantra has been ‘stick with us, we’re so close’ – and Racing has been close and showing progress up until this match. This game, however, was such a regression that they’re going to have to make up serious ground to still claim they’re as close as they say. This team looked mentally and physically miles away from the team that came out and dominated against OL Reign for the majority of last week’s match. A winning team can’t play hard against top teams and fold against weaker ones. By almost every metric, Racing should be a better team than Orlando but Racing, frankly, let the Pride beat them with such a toothless performance.
Racing did do better in the second half, but they didn’t do good enough. If they had been laid out flat in the first half, they maybe got to their feet in the second half but didn’t actually go anywhere. There was no ruthless, relentless drive to equalize or win. Thinking back to Racing’s first-ever match in Orlando back in 2021, Racing went ahead and at the end of the match, the Pride threw everything they had at Racing to equalize at the last second. Every player was flooded into Racing’s box and even goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was at the midfield line to assist in the offense by sending in long balls. There was none of that passion or drive in Racing on Saturday which is the most frustrating thing of all. It’s one thing to make mistakes, but still play your heart out. Racing made a couple of mistakes but played with an unforgivable level of low energy.
While early draws against Houston and Washington initially seemed to point to a team that was scrappy and right on the edge, they now seem to be a potential sign of a team that is unable to win instead. Those blown leads against Angel City and OL Reign are starting to haunt Racing more than ever as they languish at the bottom of the table with only four points. With every passing game without three points, the weight of expectations gets heavier and heavier so Racing will have a lot to do to get their mentality back in order and keep the season from getting away from them.
When Savannah McCaskill was traded to Angel City and Savannah DeMelo was drafted onto Racing, there were plenty of jokes that the team can’t operate without at least one Savannah present. While that joke might be lightly amusing at the best of times, it was a lot less funny on Saturday when the extent of the Savannah-shaped hole in the midfield became quickly obvious.
DeMelo, who was out on a red card suspension, has been the engine of the team since her rookie year last season. The team plays the ball through her consistently and as one of the best dribblers in the league, she’s able to push the ball forward into dangerous areas and often draw fouls. She’s good enough that she pulls extra defenders to her which opens up spaces for other Lousiville attackers to exploit. So it’s not surprising that her absence on Saturday left a noticeable gap.
The extent to which the team was affected is what’s alarming, however. No single player – even one as talented and dynamic as DeMelo – should create such a vacuum with their absence. Especially when the team has had a full week to prepare.
Howell admitted that the team did miss DeMelo and injured players like Elli Pikkujämsä, but said, “We gotta be able to handle adversity. It’s a long season. Players are going to be in and out. It’s not going to be a consistent starting IX, especially with the World Cup. We gotta figure it out. I don’t think for us that can be an excuse.”
Failure to adapt
This loss unquestionably puts pressure on Björkegren. Maybe he’s not in the hot seat yet, but his chair is certainly several degrees warmer than it was prior to this match.
The bottom line is that Racing is underperforming based on its talent. They have played brilliantly at times but utterly collapsed at others. On the whole, the team has failed to adjust to change. When Racing went down to 10 players last week after DeMelo received a red card, they did well enough but the whole gameplan on how to hold onto the win was blown apart and they didn’t adjust well enough to keep all three points. When Angel City turned on the pressure and put Racing on the back foot, they couldn’t figure out how to turn the tide back into their favor and again gave up three points.
You can call out individual player performances and give the players poor ratings, but these failures speak more to players not being put into a position to succeed. There’s only so much they can do individually. Yes, the lack of energy is completely on the players and that was a big problem in Orlando, but, so far, this is a blip that won’t be repeated. The larger trend of not getting results points beyond player efforts, however. They need to be given the best possible gameplan but they also need to collectively know exactly how to react when things go sideways. They have not shown they know how to do that at all. And, yes, much of this comes from experience, but it also comes from preparation.
And, of course, this brings the same old questions about whether Racing is playing a sustainable style back to the forefront. The club has determined that Racing will play a specific way – aggressive, high pressing, and controlling the game – but all too often Racing has shown they can’t always control the game. Or that they have the offensive chops to pull off enough goals to make the high-risk/high-reward design actually rewarding. And in a league with as much parity as the NWSL, it’s arrogant to assume any team can come out and dictate play as much as the club expects them to. This is why Racing’s inability to adapt to potholes or unexpected changes is so frustrating. You can favor this style, but you have to be able to adapt to the game that’s actually being played and not the one the club wants to be playing and so far Racing has not shown that they can do this.
The players say they’re incredibly close and the locker room and club culture is excellent. That’s great, but it’s beyond time for Racing to figure out the soccer side of things. You can say this is a young team, but that’s been Racing’s excuse for nearly three years. Yes, Racing is a young team, but Orlando is just as young if not younger and they beat Racing. Young teams can be forgiven quite a few mistakes, but at some point, they have to grow up. It’s getting to be past the time for Racing to mature and the coaching staff and club leadership who are demanding stylistic orthodoxy need to give themselves a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves why their vision won’t come together no matter how much they shuffle players and recruit new ones.
A Bright Spot
The biggest bright spot of the night was Thembi Kgatlana’s return. The South African has been out with an Achilles injury and has taken almost a year to make her debut with Racing. She barely got 10 minutes to showcase herself – which is understandable after such a long absence – so it’ll be at least another week before her true impact can be felt. Still, it was good to see a player Racing has invested so much in finally making it onto the pitch again.
“It was amazing to come back and play,” said Kgatlana after the match. Although she admitted it was a tough result, she said she was pleased to have finally checked off this individual achievement.
So glad to have her back on the pitch! 💜 pic.twitter.com/AKbs9JsD6Z
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) May 7, 2023
As for her biggest struggle with her injury, Kgatlana said it was the time it took to recover. Still, she praised Louisville extensively for its support for her throughout the process.
“I think the best thing that made me have patience to come back was how Louisville supported me even when I got injured. I signed with them on a Thursday and I got injured on a Sunday. I mean, they could have easily pulled out and said ‘Hey, we no longer want you.’ But the fact that they showed that they wanted me to be there, that’s something that also I put at the back of my mind that I want to come back and play for this club.”
Racing has a dense schedule ahead of them starting with a Friday night match against Chicago. Chicago has been something of an enigma this year. They’ve proven they can score goals, but they also let in quite a few. This is an absolutely must-win match for Louisville. As Howell said, “We need to get results, period.” The fact this match is at home will ideally provide something of an edge for Louisville who will hopefully come out more aggressively in front of their own fans.
The Chicago match will be followed up quickly by a midweek match against Kansas City to open Racing’s Challenge Cup play. The Current recently beat the Dash 0-2 in their first Challenge Cup match, so Racing will need to win to stay in the running. This match will also be a home game for Louisville and, if they get a good result against Chicago, maybe they can build on it here.
Racing will play the Current a mere three days later on Saturday night in Kansas City to end their densest period of games all season.
Both Chicago and Kansas City are beatable, but they’re also both more than able to beat Racing if Racing doesn’t come out with better energy and start playing tighter, cleaner soccer. If Racing is going to get points, they need to score at least two goals. To get a win, this season has shown they probably need to get three. That’s a tall order for a team whose offense has been riddled with injury and run hot and cold. The attackers need to find their rhythm and find it fast or it’s going to be a long, tough season for Racing.