“We Know How Good This Team Can Be”
It was a big night for Racing Louisville on Saturday when they earned a 2-0 victory on the road against Kansas City. Not only was this a historic third consecutive win for the young club across all competition, thanks to an odd schedule quirk, it was also the second straight victory over the Current in only four days. In the three games Racing has played in only eight days, they’ve scored eight goals, earned nine points, and moved from near the bottom of the table up to just out of playoff contention in seventh place.
In other words, purp is looking pretty darn big right about now.
“We’re thrilled,” said midfielder and captain Jaelin Howell of the team’s recent performance. “We’re going to continue to build and continue to look at the areas we can get better because we’re not done with this. We know it’s exciting, but we know how good this team can be. This is just the beginning. This was huge for our confidence.”
Racing got on the board early when Savannah DeMelo made a gutsy run to capitalize on a poor back pass to Kansas City keeper Cassie Miller. DeMelo got her body in front of Miller’s kick to send the ball ricocheting off her leg and into the back of the goal. Fifteen minutes later, a beautiful buildup from the back featuring picture-perfect passing from Wang Shuang to DeMelo to Kirsten Davis found the second goal of the night when Davis broke past Kansas City’s back line and beat Miller one-on-one.
That was the end of the goals from the night, but it wasn’t the end of the action. Kansas City continued their trend this season of coming out even harder in the second half and this game was no different. Three of Katie Lund’s six saves and two blocks were required in the final 15 minutes of the match. Lund once again showed off her immense skill when she not only blocked a quick shot from only about eight yards away but sent it out of danger instead of to the feet of one of the many attackers around her.
Racing has gone up by two goals in the first half twice this season only to settle for the draw in the second. The fact they were able to hold off a team that came at them harder in the second half and not just get the win, but also get a clean sheet is a major achievement for this team. It’s almost certainly a bigger, more important achievement than earning the winning streak in terms of the team’s mentality. Players have begged fans for patience and assured them they were close for a long time now. There’s only so long players and fans can believe that without the team actually getting results, so the fact they’re getting results and holding onto them is going to be critical in bolstering confidence moving forward.
All in all, this was a gutsy, strong performance from a Racing team that’s on a roll. If Racing coach Kim Björkegren and company bet that winning the early match-up would give them the momentum to come out and grab the second, they have certainly been proven to have been right. This is a team playing with confidence and assurance. It wasn’t their best performance, but it had enough confidence and determination that it not only carried them through, but it also kept a clean sheet as well.
“Overall, a great team performance and team spirit,” said coach Björkegren. It’s difficult to play three games in eight days, but they have worked so hard together and I’m so proud of the group.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 21, 2023
By the Numbers
This game was quite different from the match played against Kansas City earlier in the week. It’s interesting that Racing dominated Wednesday’s match statistically, but eked out a 3-2 win when Saturday’s game was much closer – with the Current on top in many key categories – and yet Racing won 2-0.
On Saturday, Racing produced slightly less xG than Kansas City (KC: 1.77 ; LOU:1.55 ), had fewer shots (KC: 18; LOU:15 ), and shots on goal, (KC: 6; LOU: 4 ). The Current also created three big chances to Racing’s one.
Racing did hold the tiniest edge in possession with just over 51%. And while Kansas City had a slightly better passing accuracy overall (75% to Racing’s 74%), Racing had better passing accuracy in the final third (67% to KC’s 58%).
Defensively, Kansas City had to make 22 clearances to Racing’s 18. Racing’s keeper Katie Lund had to make six saves to counterpart Cassie Miller’s two.
Kansas City came back hard in the second half, as they always seem to do, and 11 of their 18 shots in the final 45 minutes along with five of their six on target. They earned 1.24 of their xG – essentially two-thirds of their game total – in the second half as a result. The only way Racing was able to walk away with this result is because they put out a truly gritty performance both offensively, and, in particular, defensively as the entire team came together to play both sides of the ball and hold their lead.
“Pure Grit and Effort”
One thing Racing has done well this season is score pretty goals. Look at Ary Borges’ equalizer against the Spirit earlier in the year. DeMelo’s showstopper using the outside of her right foot last Wednesday is an even better example. The sheer audacity of that goal was enough to earn whole articles dedicated to singing its praise.
As lovely as these goals have been, what Racing hasn’t done enough of is earn rough and tumble “I’m getting this no matter what” shots. Too often attackers dance around the box or take too many touches waiting for the perfect opportunity instead of just going for it, come what may.
That changed last night with DeMelo’s first goal.
A Kansas City defender made a poor back pass and, after the match, DeMelo said she heard Jaelin Howell and Carson Pickett shouting at her to press hard and run for it, so she did. She ran hard at the keeper who failed to move forward fast enough to beat DeMelo and DeMelo earned a goal that absolutely deflated Kansas City. After all, it’s one thing to have another team score a banger that you had no chance of stopping and it’s another to have them capitalize directly off a mistake you made.
After the match, Howell called DeMelo’s goal “pure grit and effort” and she was right. They turned a fairly even matchup into a win by going hard at their opponents and it got them a result. This is exactly the energy they’ll need when they go against tougher opponents in the future. When all other things are even – and sometimes even when you’re outmatched – your mentality and energy can be the difference maker. If Racing has finally unlocked this lesson, it might give them the edge they need to actually climb up the standing and hold onto a playoff berth.
Of course, it wasn’t only the offense that played a gutsy game. As important as both goals were, it’s Racing’s defense that kept them in the game and earned the clean sheet.
As the statistics show, the Current was significantly more dangerous in the second half, but Racing was more than up for the challenge. The well-organized defense combined with Lund’s phenomenal saves kept Kansas City off the board and gave Racing a very valuable leg up in goal differential. Racing now has a positive two-goal differential which is the first tiebreaker after points in team rankings. So with so many teams sitting only a point or two apart in the standings, that goal differential might be the difference-maker in getting a top-six spot or not in the standings.
After the match, Björkegren had particular praise for center-back Abby Erceg and how well she directed the backline all game. He highlighted her ability to tell her fellow center-back Julia Lester when to move over to help cover right-back Lauren Milliet and when to pull back and cover the goal as a key bit of game management that kept the clean sheet. There’s no question Erceg has been a massive boost to Racing this season. Center-back isn’t the flashiest position, but it’s a deeply critical one and it’s been a point of weakness for Racing their entire existence. The way Erceg has been able to anchor the backline has arguably been the biggest improvement to Racing all season. As hard as it was for Louisville fans to lose Emily Fox, there’s no question Racing is better for having Erceg and fellow defender Carson Pickett as the result of the trade.
Of course, Lund also deserves praise for her performance in goal. After a couple of rough matches earlier in the season, Lund seems totally back to her dynamic self. Her late saves – particularly the close-range shot from Vanessa DiBernardo in stoppage time – were critical for Racing and earned high praise from coach Björkegren, a former professional keeper himself.
“The save in the end was totally crazy. But that shows her potential and why she’s going to be a national team goalkeeper in the future.”
Outside of individual players, it should be noted just how well the whole team came back and defended collectively. Racing snapped back into a tight defensive formation quickly and didn’t let themselves be stretched much which gave Kansas City little room to maneuver in the final third. All lines pressed well to force turnovers and allow interceptions when Kansas City had possession as well.
This is a huge step forward from Racing’s performance against Portland a few weeks ago when the Thorns were able to flood the box and leave Racing’s defenders outnumbered or scrambling back too late to try and stop goals. Racing is playing both sides of the ball well which highlights the most important evolution Racing has had this season: They’re actually learning.
When teams aren’t performing well, there’s a lot of lip service paid to the idea of losses or tough draws being learning experiences. In the past, fans would be assured that the team really was getting something out of their tough strings of matches, but little would change on the field to show that was true.
That’s what’s so exciting about Racing’s most recent performances: They’re actually learning.
“The silver lining with going up two goals against L.A. and Seattle and drawing is that you learn from those games and the exciting part is we did learn from those games and it shows in games like this,” said Howell after the match. “We’re up 2-0 going into the half and we come out and know how to work together defensively and I think the most exciting part is just seeing the growth of this team.”
Lessons learned by this team include much of what was already discussed above. The lesson of grittiness and drive. The lesson of defending together as a unit. For Lund, learning how to stay in a game late despite not being called on to do much early on. The lesson of pressing as an entire team and not just putting on spotty pressure. The lesson of having a truly organized defensive back line. All these are areas where Racing suffered noticeably this season but has demonstrably pulled it together in these past few games.
Taken all at once, these different points have led to the even bigger lesson of how to hold onto a lead. As Howell mentioned, the silver lining of giving up leads for draws only exists if you truly learn from it and Racing has done just that. Before, Howell said that the team has “almost been scared to lose” when they’ve gone ahead. Being in the lead was an unfamiliar place for them and they didn’t know what to do. Thanks to veteran leadership and gained experience, the team has learned to come out playing just as hard in the second half to hold onto that lead and that mentality change has been the biggest difference maker.
In her post-match press conference, Howell said that she still thinks teams underestimate Racing. That’s not going to be the case for long, though – if it’s even still true. The next lesson Racing will have to learn is how to keep this energy up against tougher competition and opponents who view you as more of a threat than they ever have before. The good news for Racing is that this season they’ve proven to be fast learners and seem poised and ready to take that next step.
There’s Something About Savannah
Of course, it would be unfair to close this article without mentioning just how sublime Savannah DeMelo has been in these past few matches. She’s scored five goals in eight games across all competition and she’s given no sign of stopping. When DeMelo’s on the field, she is the player to watch no question. Previously, that player used to be Debinha, but as amazing as Debinha is, when DeMelo is on the field, she outshines her.
What makes DeMelo so unique is her incredible combination of ball handling, precision scoring, and indefatigable work rate. She simply reads the game better than almost any player on the field and works harder, too.
For Howell, this is just how DeMelo has always been. “I’ve played with Sav since I was 16 and she’s always been like that. People are just catching on.”
And catching on is exactly what people are doing. The cries for DeMelo to be added to the World Cup roster grow louder and louder every single day. Teammate Erceg has also added her voice to the choir as of last night on Twitter. And after playing in four Olympics, four World Cups, and captaining teams that have won three NWSL championships, three NWSL shields, and a Challenge Cup, it’s safe to say Erceg is probably a very good judge of talent.
As proud of DeMelo’s performance as he may be, Björkegren was a little droller with his take on DeMelo potentially making the World Cup roster, saying only, “I’m worried about it because she deserves it,” with a wry smile.
Racing will be put to a challenging test next Saturday when they return to Lynn Family Stadium to face the North Carolina Courage.
This will be a loaded game for a couple of reasons. First, Racing has never beaten the Courage and the Courage have also handed Racing their worst losses ever.
This North Carolina team is very different from the one Racing has faced in the past, however, but that’s actually the second reason this game will be higher stakes than normal. In Racing’s biggest trade of the off-season, they sent Fox to North Carolina in exchange for Pickett and Erceg. While both Pickett and Erceg have signed extensions with Racing and seem more than happy to be in Louisville, there’s no question they’ll be itching to beat their former team. And it’s not a stretch to assume Fox will want to return to Lynn Family Stadium and earn points off her old team as well.
The Courage is definitely still a good team, but there are some questions about the team’s consistency. They have one more win than Racing in eight games, but also one more loss. As a result, they sit just above Racing in the standings in sixth place with 11 points – only a single point more than Louisville.
If Racing is going to show they have truly turned the corner and are a winning team, they need to beat the Courage. To truly have a shot at playoffs, Racing needs to start winning against other midtable teams that sit above them in the standings. They can’t just settle for draws or for only beating weaker teams like Chicago and Kansas City. Racing has the momentum of a winning streak and home-field advantage behind them. The Courage, meanwhile, is coming off a frustrating draw against Angel City where they statistically should have won, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
This lack of scoring is the Courage’s greatest weakness. They’ve scored fewer goals than Racing (NCC: 8; LOU: 11) and have vastly fewer shots on target (NCC: 28; LOU: 45). Both teams have conceded nine goals. So, by those statistics, it’s easy to assume that they’re defensively pretty similar, but Racing should have the offensive edge. The only game where the Courage scored more than one goal was in a wild 3-3 draw against the Portland Thorns. Other than that, they’ve scored a single goal or been shut out. Racing has either scored zero goals or a minimum of two per game and they’re on a streak of three multi-goal games in a row.
If Racing can keep this trend of scoring a minimum of two goals going, they will have a very good shot of beating the Courage. Their defense will have to be as strong as it was against Kansas City on Saturday to fend off players Kerolin and Taylor Lussi, but Racing should be up to the task after shutting out the likes of Cece Kizer and Debinha.
“I think it’s about resetting, recovering, and kind of forgetting about the wins and just focusing on North Carolina and just knowing that we need another win,” said DeMelo on the team’s next steps. “We just want to keep pushing forward.”