Control and Consistency
Despite energetic end-to-end play by both teams, Racing Louisville’s Friday night match against the San Diego Wave ended in a scoreless draw. This was one of Racing’s most consistent and mistake-free matches all season even if they only earned a point. To earn a clean sheet in a late-night away match against the top team in the league is no small accomplishment. Still, with a missed penalty and a questionable foul call that pulled back a goal, Racing will certainly be frustrated not to come away with the full three points while San Diego probably feel like they ended up lucky.
Even if the players are frustrated with the result, Louisville fans are likely heartened. The story of Racing this season has been excellent stretches of play marked by periods of inconsistency. They’ve dominated opponents in almost every statistic but lost points due to nagging, recurring mistakes. On Friday, most of these mistakes were gone. Racing coach Kim Björkegren told the media it was one of the team’s most disciplined games and it showed. Players pressed well which earned them a good number of chances and kept the Wave from getting comfortable. Jess McDonald, Alex Chidiac, and Kirsten Davis all got into the box to help force turnovers in dangerous areas. Even better, they got numbers in the box together to collect rebounds and win the second ball which is something they’ve struggled with before. Davis in particular had an excellent first half where she got in behind defensive lines and even beat San Diego keeper Carly Telford at times.
Defensively, Racing put on one of their best performances all season. Defenders stayed organized and more attentive when playing out from the back. They marked and pressured attackers well to help reduce good looks on goal. Gemma Bonner and Julia Lester put in possibly their best shifts all season. Newcomer Zaneta Wyne started for the second time in left back and looked every bit the experienced veteran she is. In the midfield, both Jaelin Howell and Freja Olofsson looked sharp as dual No. 6’s with the rookie Howell continuing to look better and better every match. And, of course, goalkeeper Katie Lund put on a masterclass in goal and earned eight big saves to keep a clean sheet.
“For us to come away with a clean sheet, for sure, that’s a huge positive,” said captain Gemma Bonner after the match. “But we can also see a huge positive in that we’re disappointed not to come away with the three points because I think the performance we put in tonight more than deserved that.”
As Bonner said, it’s a good sign the players aren’t satisfied with just a draw when they knew they played well enough for a win. The team has been going through rough patch with a now seven-game winless streak. If they’re able to keep up the level of control and consistency they showed on Friday, however, they might have finally turned a corner just in time for the second half of the season.
By the Numbers
All in all, this was a very even, exciting, and energetic match featuring lots of chances for both teams. There were a combined total of 39 shots and 15 shots on target with Racing edging the Wave out on shots (LOU: 20; SD: 19) but the Wave edging out Racing for shots on target (LOU: 6; SD: 9). Even with the Wave’s more accurate shooting, Racing was the more dangerous team and earned significantly higher xG (LOU: 2.33; SD: 1.95).
For a game to have a combined 4.28 xG and zero goals is an interesting occurrence, but both goalkeepers put in strong shifts all match. The Wave’s Carly Telford made 6 saves, including the game-saving penalty save, while Racing’s Katie Lund made a whopping 8 saves and 2 clearances.
Although Racing had slightly lower passing accuracy than they’ve had recently (61% versus being closer to 70%), they still beat the Wave’s 55% showing they did a good job of disrupting San Diego’s ball movement. Racing also won more duels (LOU: 55%; SD: 45%) and aerial duels (LOU: 59%; SD: 41%) than their opponent.
Defensively, Bonner had a particularly good game. The center back won the most tackles (3) of anyone on the team and she also topped the team in clearances (7). Interestingly, the only other player with more clearances on either team was former Racing player and center back partner to Bonner, Kayleigh Riehl, who had 10 total.
Two Lunderful saves with a Gem of goal line block. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/kg5C4bAksi
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) July 16, 2022
The Kids Are More Than Alright
It’s been said ad nauseum that Racing is a very young team. The good news for Racing is that their rookies are doing exceptionally well.
Much has been said about Savannah DeMelo and her exceptional start as a professional player. She’s started every regular-season match, she’s the only player to score directly off a set piece and she’s done it twice. She can play all over the midfield. She leads the team in multiple offensive and defensive metrics every match and regularly draws the most fouls of any player on either team because she’s so dangerous on the ball. In short, she’s the real deal.
Often this season, DeMelo would play as a No. 6. In this match, however, Olofsson got the start as a No. 6 next to Howell and they did well together. Does this free DeMelo up to play in the attacking role she prefers? Ultimately, it might not matter. Regardless of where she’s being asked to play, she’s been the most consistent player on the team so all that really matters is simply that she’s on the pitch.
It’s interesting to see DeMelo become such a superstar so fast when, during the draft, all attention was on Jaelin Howell. Howell was a top collegiate player who came to Racing already having U.S. National Team experience. It’s taken Howell a bit more time to adjust to being a professional compared to DeMelo, but Howell has also followed a more typical trajectory for a rookie. DeMelo, Emily Fox, and Trinity Rodman are more of the exception than the rule for rookies. And not all teams rely so heavily on their first-year players to come into the pros and be starter-ready so she’s had a lot put on her very quickly.
During the match broadcast, a quote about Howell was attributed to Coach Björkegren that said, “Sometimes she’s everywhere but she’s also nowhere because she does a little bit too much.” In short, she overcommits to plays and sometimes gets pulled out of position which diminishes her effectiveness. This is already starting to change, however. In these last two matches, Howell has truly started to come into her own. She’s been good all regular season, but she recently played her best game all season against Gotham and then turned around and topped that performance against San Diego. On Friday, Howell had the most duels (16), most successful duels (11), most aerial duels (11), and most successful aerial duels (9) of either team. She also had the most total passes (38) and accurate passes (29) of anyone on Racing. A more disciplined and settled Howell might be the final piece to helping solidify Racing’s defense into an organized, consistent group that can take the team to the next level.
And, finally, Kirsten Davis earned her third straight start and showed solid progress for the third straight match. It was clear from the first minutes that the Wave wasn’t expecting Kirsten Davis. Her speed and quick reactions sent her slicing past defenders on multiple occasions and only a solid performance by Carly Telford in goal kept her off the scoresheet.
During the expansion draft, Racing protected Davis’ rights which they’d taken in the 2021 NWSL Draft after she chose to play her final year of eligibility at Texas Tech. Some questioned the decision to protect a totally unproven rookie, but it’s clear in every start she gets that she has an immense amount of potential. Davis has had fewer minutes than DeMelo and Howell so she’s still somewhat greener than them, but even so, she’s getting sharper and more effective with each start. Once she gets her finishing down, her speed and quick thinking will make her an extremely deadly option. After all, she’s already won over Jess McDonald. During the preseason, McDonald told the press that Davis was already one of her favorite attackers she’d ever worked with despite only scrimmaging with her a few times. You can’t really get higher praise than that.
In short, Racing is relying on an immense amount of young talent which means there’ll be a longer learning curve. Even so, fans are clearly starting to see the players these rookies might become. They’re all doing well now despite Racing being stuck in a winless streak, but this is just their floor. We haven’t even gotten close to seeing their ceilings yet. And we haven’t even talked about rookies like Parker Goins or Taylor Malham who’ve provided a huge dose of energy off the bench or the rookie keepers Jordyn Bloomer or Hillary Beall. Slightly disappointing draws like Friday’s match will eventually become big wins for a slightly more mature Racing squad. That might feel like cold consolation now, but this is a club that’s clearly rebuilding for the future and they have a great foundation of young talent to build off of.
So Are the Newcomers
As great as the kids are doing, it would be remiss not to talk about the more veteran newcomers who’ve arrived, also. Alex Chidiac and Zaneta Wyne, in particular, have been difference makers on this Racing squad in the past few matches.
Chidiac had a great game against Gotham and an even better game against San Diego. She was running in and getting second balls or helping to force turnovers in dangerous areas all game. Chidiac brings a good deal of energy and pressure that the team hasn’t always had in the past. She’s always running, always playing creatively, not afraid to take shots, and is always working on both sides of the ball. As she gets more time with the team, she’ll continue to settle and there’s no doubt she’ll start finishing some of those chances that have come so close every match.
Wyne was recently signed as a national team replacement player while Emily Fox, Satara Murray, and Rebecca Holloway are playing in World Cup qualifiers. Despite only playing in two matches, she’s already made the case for getting signed for the rest of the season. She’s been cool-headed and smart as an outer back and has looked solid under pressure. When she’s made a mistake, she’s been able to pivot and, in many cases, immediately correct it and even win the ball back herself. There’s no question that Emily Fox will become a starter the moment she arrives back in Louisville. Even so, Wyne has definitely put herself in contention to stay as a starter once Fox returns.
Racing fans have yet to see Satara Murray on the field, but she’s an experienced, dynamic veteran who helps boost the team. Rebecca Holloway had a rough time in her two starts with Racing, but she also had just arrived in the country and was recovering from Covid-19 so she can be given some grace. Both Murray and Holloway have made some excellent plays on their respective national teams during qualifying this month so there’s a lot to look forward to from both of them once they arrive back in town.
The Better Team
After Friday’s match, coach Björkegren insisted, “Overall we were absolutely the better team.” He was right from a number of angles including the quality of chances created, possession, and more. The previous week, almost every statistic showed that Racing was the better team than Gotham, too. There can be some arguments that they were better than Orlando the week before that. In almost every way, they look like a better team than they did last year. And, it ends up, that’s because they are.
By this time last season, Racing had a 4-6-2 record for 14 points compared to this year’s 2-5-5 record of 11 points. In a short Twitter thread, VP of Communications for Racing Louisville and Louisville City Jonathan Lintner used some simple stats to show that fans’ eyes aren’t deceiving them; Racing is unquestionably better than they were last year.
Racing had taken 117 shots for, saw 223 against and needed 67 saves to get that record at its inaugural season’s midpoint. Those numbers are 162/149/46, respectively, in 2022.
— Jonathan Lintner (@JonathanLintner) July 17, 2022
Despite the better record, Racing in 2021 had taken only 117 shots but saw 223 shots from opponents. They also needed 67 saves. This year, they’ve taken 162 shots (+38%), only seen 149 shots from opponents (-33%) and needed only 46 saves (-31%). Those are some undeniably significant improvements both offensively and defensively. Last year, fans spent a lot of time just begging Racing to take shots. Now, they’re taking them. Everybody rightfully oohed and aahed over Michelle Betos’ clutch saves, but the fact of the matter is, she was forced into way more than she should have.
So why is Racing’s record worse? A lot of that is due to the same old mistakes and brief spans of inattentiveness discussed after every match. Some of it is also just pure bad luck. On Friday, called a soft foul by Jaelin Howell on goalkeeper Carly Telford in the box which called back what arguably should have been the game-winning goal. On social media, at least, the overwhelming sentiment by Racing and non-Racing fans alike was that this was a goal and Racing was robbed of three points. Racing has had several other unlucky calls, like a potentially missed penalty call last week against Gotham. That’s just part of the game, unfortunately, and Racing can only hope that in the second half of the season they’ll find some of that karma they’ve earned to help give them a boost.
Either way, for fans questioning if Racing is making progress versus last year, the answer is pretty definitively yes. They are young and inexperienced and need to stop making so many mistakes that cost them points, but they are definitely building to something better than they were. It will just take some time and patience before they get there.
Racing now faces a two-week break before taking on the Portland Thorns on July 29th in Louisville. When they come back they’ll likely have Emily Fox, Nadia Nadim, Rebecca Holloway, and Satara Murray back on the roster which will give them a boost. And they’ll need it because they’ll be jumping into a period of three games in just seven days. All of them may be at home at Lynn Family Stadium, but they’re against some tough opponents.
After Friday’s match against Portland, they have a Tuesday night match against OL Reign and another Friday night match against the Washington Spirit. None of these opponents will be easy to beat, but Racing has historically done well on a tight schedule. They can stay locked in and stay in form. And with no travel needed, maybe they can earn some points in this homestead.
Racing has a long way to go before they become the team they want to be. Although the recent string of matches has been hard, it’s clear they are making progress in every way but the win column. The fact they’ve moved on from popular and immensely talented players like Ebony Salmon is understandably upsetting for many fans. But Racing has a very clear vision of how they want to play and they’re sticking to it. To keep players that don’t fit into that system does a disservice to everyone – especially the player who will be rightfully upset they’re not being played.
Based on the strides they’ve made, it seems like having a clear guiding vision might work out for Racing – eventually. It’s just going to take some time before that happens. Rebuilds don’t happen overnight and it should be glaringly clear to everyone that this is exactly what’s happening with Racing. The good news is they still have half a season left to play. If they can truly turn the corner past some of these careless mistakes they’ve been making and earn some wins, that would go a long way in proving they’re on the right track. And what better time to show that than in a tough three-game homestead against some of the best teams in the league?