Blowin’ in the wind
With high winds ravaging the pitch, it looked as if Racing Louisville would get blown away by the Washington Spirit in their home opener. By the half-time whistle, the Spirit’s Ashley Hatch had scored a brace while Racing had nothing to show for their efforts.
That changed immediately in the second half when Louisville earned a corner in less than a minute. The ball in by Wang Shuang was headed home by Abby Erceg on a massive leap that brought her head and shoulders above the competition. Just twenty minutes later, Ary Borges tied it up with a half-volley golazo off of a bad clearance. Lauren Milliet had made a run up the right and her cross was deflected out. Savannah pressed the defender with possession well enough that the attempted clearance left the ball bouncing in the box long enough for Borges to step to it and send a banger into the top right corner from 17 yards out.
In the final 30 or so minutes there were a couple of good chances for both teams to take the lead – including another potential header from Erceg – but the score stayed level until the final whistle.
There’s zero question the wind impacted the game significantly. It was blowing at a steady 25 to 30 miles per hour all match with intermittent gusts up to 45 miles per hour, strong enough to blow the ball out of position during set pieces. While less than ideal, that’s just part of the game, said Erceg.
“You go on with tactics and you work all week and then the wind just kind of takes it away so you have to adapt on the fly,” she explained. “Obviously, in the first half, we didn’t do a very good job of that and then in the second half, we just needed to make sure that we got an early goal so that we could get back in the game. Which we did.”
Erceg’s goal marks the first for Louisville in the regular season and is also her first wearing lavender. As for Borges’ goal, coach Kim Björkegren was understandably very impressed, but not surprised. “She is that kind of player that you’ll probably see that one or two more times, for sure.”
This level of fight from Racing to come back from a 0-2 deficit to earn a point is a rarity for the team. In fact, the only time they’ve ever done it was last season. And that was, interestingly enough, also against the Washington Spirit. Even so, this Spirit squad is coming off of a win against last year’s shield winners OL Reign. They were energized from their great opener last week, but Racing was still up to the task to stop them. As a result, Racing has earned two draws to start the season. While they certainly want that still elusive win, two draws against teams that are currently ranked third and fourth in the league is a nice start.
It’s clear that there’s a new mentality to Racing. In the past two seasons, there were questions about how much this team actually believed they could win matches. They fought hard every game, but it didn’t always seem like the belief was there. At least in the beginning of 2023, that seems to have changed.
“We talked at halftime that we were still thinking we could win the game,” said Björkegren. “We had an amazing second half, scoring two goals and coming close to a third one. It showed good team spirit. I’m overall happy with the performance, even if we were trying to win the game.”
Erceg said that earning a draw against Houston and following it up with a come-from-behind draw against the Spirit shows they’re not a team that will give up points easily.
“Getting into the next game, that’s huge for us and I think last year this team might have just given up and just been like we’re two down. It’s gonna end up four-nil, and that’s just how it goes. But we said right from the very start that we wanna rewrite the history a little bit of this club and we wanna make this stadium really hard to play at and I think the girls did a really, really good job of that today.”
By the numbers
As with last week’s match against Houston, Racing played a very even match where equal to their opponent in nearly every metric. This isn’t too surprising considering both matches were draws, but, as with last week, the fact that Racing is consistently getting shots and shots on goal that equal their opponents is a positive trend that the team has not seen during the past two years. This week, both teams had 11 shots with Racing putting four on frame compared to Washington’s five. Once again, they were beaten in xG (Louisville’s 0.82 to Washington’s 1.56) so Racing does still need to work on generating strong chances, more consistent chances and, of course, putting them away.
In goal, Katie Lund made a couple of fantastic saves, but, thankfully, she was called on far less than she has in previous matches. Against Washington, she only made three saves compared to the seven that were required against Houston.
Racing continues to show improved passing accuracy from past years with 71% this match compared to Washington’s 68%. Racing also edged the Spirit out on possession 53% to 47%.
Beyond just her goal, Erceg has been very effective for Louisville in the team’s first two matches of the year – especially in the air. Not only did she score Racing’s first goal of 2023 off a header, but she’s also won every one of her aerial duels so far this season (1/1 against the Spirit and 2/2 against Houston).
Player highlight: Elli Pikkujämsä
For the second game in a row, Elli Pikkujämsä has been a standout player on the pitch. She’s a rock-solid ball winner and, against Washington, won back possession more times than any player on either team (12 times). This is even more impressive considering she’s been playing out of position. The Finnish national team member has been slotted into the No. 6 position for both regular season games despite being signed to play center. But with Jaelin Howell injured, Pikkujämsä has proven she’s more than up to the task and wowed viewers on Saturday with her ability to retain possession while fighting through a press of at least four Spirit players.
Erceg said she knows from experience just how hard that adjustment can be considering she played as a holding midfielder before with the Western New York Flash.
“It’s tough if you’re going from a position where there’s people only in front of you to having people literally everywhere around you. Your time’s a lot less and your technique has to be sharper, so kudos to her for doing it. It’s a tough role to play and I think she’s doing a really good job.”
Pikkujämsä was much more reserved in her assessment of her own game saying, “I’m not gonna be too positive. I still have a lot to do and I feel like it’s getting better and better.”
With Howell seemingly back from injury and getting subbed in late in the match, it’s likely Pikkujämsä will soon be slotting back next to Erceg. The two had a good rapport during the preseason tournament in Portland and after such a strong performance as a last-minute No. 6, there’s little question Pikkujämsä has earned her place as a starter.
With an international break this week, Racing won’t be back until April 15th when they head out west to play Angel City FC in Los Angeles. Look for a preview of that match along with a review of how Racing’s many international players performed during their national team stints next week.