Racing Louisville may look a whole lot different when they return after the international break. Despite being in the middle of a two-week hiatus, there’s been no shortage of activity for the team. In the past two weeks, new players Gemma Bonner and Ebony Salmon arrived and the club announced the signing of star forward Nadia Nadim. Additionally, several current players are finally available for selection after lengthy recoveries.
With so much added depth, it might be difficult choosing starters, but Racing Coach Christy Holly is ready.
“It’s a good problem to be able to pick a different lineup,” admitted Holly. Rotation has been difficult with injuries and delayed arrivals from Europe. Long travel days and back-to-back games fatigue players. So the current starters who’ve played the most minutes, like Savannah McCaskill and CeCe Kizer, need rest to prevent injury. “The players that are playing are going to continue to play and they’ve been absolutely fantastic for us. But it allows us to alleviate some pressure on their shoulders.”
A deeper bench and extra opportunities for rest are more important than ever as Racing plays three games in just six days when they return.
Let’s take a closer look at these new additions and returning players and see how they might impact the team moving forward.
A New Player Has Entered: The New Signings
Back in late April, Louisville made waves when it announced that English defender Gemma Bonner was leaving Manchester City to sign with Racing. Bonner brings over a decade of professional and leadership experience to the young team. In 2013 and 2014, Bonner captained Liverpool to consecutive FAWSL championships and she was called into the English national team as recently as 2019.
After a lengthy delay, Bonner has made it to Louisville just in time for their last game against the Thorns. She traveled with the team – and got an unexpected tour of the United States in the process – but didn’t get any minutes that match. Bonner hasn’t played a competitive match since November 2019 after a string of injuries and illness setbacks kept her sidelined. She is cleared for selection but may need a bit more time building up fitness to earn a starting role.
Bonner brings leadership and experience to a backline that has struggled to stay organized under pressure. She feels her biggest strength will be helping manage these high-pressure moments and help in the transition. She also believes she can help the team work out how to keep possession more, which has been a huge issue as Racing has only held 40% possession in their last three matches.
In mid-May, Racing signed Ebony Salmon, a young English forward widely considered to be one of Britain’s top prospects. At 20 years old, Salmon is the youngest player on Racing’s roster. Despite her youth, she has several years of experience in the FAWSL. While her last club, Bristol City, struggled and was relegated at the end of the season, Salmon was impressive enough to get called into the first team. This past February, she received her first cap with the English national team in their win against Northern Ireland. In 2020, she was shortlisted for the BBC Sport WSL Young Player of the Year award and in 2021 was nominated for the Professional Footballer’s Association Young Women’s Player of the Year.
Like Bonner, Salmon only recently arrived in Louisville and had her first team practice on 11 June. Still, Coach Holly says she’s ready to go saying he’d “put her in right off the bat” if it was game week. So fans should expect to see Salmon get some minutes in the next match, maybe even a start.
Salmon describes her own style of play as quick and strong with a desire to get forward and score goals. Salmon notched 6 goals in 15 starts this past season with Bristol City, so she should bring some needed firepower to Racing’s offense. She’s also blisteringly fast, both on and off the ball, and has sharp decision-making abilities in front of goal that make her a nightmare for defenders. Her ability to separate herself from defenders and create enough space to get a shot away is so natural that Holly can only describe it as “scary”.
On June 9, it was announced that Afghan-Danish star Nadia Nadim was returning to the NWSL to join Racing Louisville. Nadim is a prolific goalscorer tallying ten goals and four assists this past season with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). These efforts helped PSG earn their first Division 1 title earlier this month, breaking the 14-year stranglehold Lyon has had on the French league. In her last stint in the NWSL, Nadim was the top goal scorer for the Thorns in 2016. She scored nine goals in 20 games helping the team earn the league Shield for having the best regular-season record. In 2017, she helped the Thorns earn their second championship alongside Racing’s goalkeeper and captain Michelle Betos. Nadim is a long-time Danish national team starter and widely considered to be the most successful female Afghan footballer of all time.
Nadim is still going through the visa process, so it’s unclear exactly when she’ll arrive. With that expected to take between 10 and 14 days, however, she should be here any day now. And after just finishing a season in France, she’s game fit and ready to go as soon as she lands. Even if she arrives in time for the June 20 game, however, it’s unlikely she’ll play in that match. She’ll likely have to quarantine and rest a bit after the long flight. Still, if all goes well, she might be ready as early as June 23 or June 26.
On the field, Nadim is a world-class goal scorer whose presence best be described as energetic and resolute. She says she “hates losing” and lets “fury” fuel her on the pitch and take her game to the next level. In her own words, she gives her “blood, sweat, and tears” to her teams and will do the same for Racing. After more than a decade of professional experience at the highest levels, she can serve as the veteran presence up front that Louisville has been missing. Holly often describes his young team as still impressionable. Nadim is the embodiment of the driven, winning player Holly wants to influence his team.
When the sky is filled with smoke and fire…
— Nadia Nadim (@nadia_nadim) June 9, 2021
All three international signings are high-quality, proven talents who surely had their pick of clubs to join. Nadim and Bonner come from two of the most storied and successful clubs in Europe. Prior to signing with Racing, rumors linked Salmon with almost every top club in the FAWSL. So what brought them to Louisville?
Across the board, every player said the club’s ambitions matched their own. They like the fact that they can be a part of building up a new team and impact its culture. And the world-class facilities and dedication and support from the club leadership certainly helped, too.
“What struck me was how dedicated the club was and how ambitious they were,” said Nadim of her discussions with Holly about joining Racing. After learning more about the club and what it offered, Nadim says: “There was no doubt, I wanted to be part of this journey and part of writing history. Part of a challenge. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Bonner agrees: “I think it’s one of the best in the world in terms of the facilities and how they’re doing things,” she explained. “They’re making sure they’re getting everything right and looking after the person and the player as well.” And just like Nadim, the choice was easy once the offer was made. “For me, it was a no-brainer when given the opportunity.”
Return to the Field
New players aren’t the only ones shaking up the lineup. Cheyna Matthews, Addisyn Merrick, and Julia Ashley are all available for selection after injury setbacks. Midfielder Taylor Otto might also be returning sooner than expected after a knee injury.
Matthews was able to get about ten minutes of time in Racing’s last match against Portland. These were her first competitive minutes since 2019. Since her last game, she’s given birth to her second child and had muscle strains that delayed her return. She described getting back on the pitch as highly emotional and said she was happy to have had the chance to get that hurdle behind her. She’s currently representing Jamaica in the Summer Series where she’s started both games and played approximately 60 minutes in each. She provides some more experience on the front line and adds additional depth in the center forward position.
Defenders Ashley and Merrick will likely need some more conditioning before they get considered for starts. Merrick hasn’t played since early in the preseason when she suffered a spinal injury. Ashley only played a few minutes in the Challenge Cup before injuring her foot. However, just having them available for selection is huge for Racing. Super subs can be just as impactful as starters. Look at the immediate impact Emina Ekic had on Racing Louisville’s first win against the Washington Spirit in May. Coming off the bench, she quickly scored the game-winner. She then provided an assist to CeCe Kizer for an insurance goal. So even if every returning player isn’t an immediate starter, their impact can still be substantial.
All in all, both new players and returning players bring a whole new look for Racing both offensively and defensively. It may take some time for the international players to adjust to the NWSL’s physicality and style of play. And it may take some time for team chemistry to gel with so many roster changes. But, ultimately, a deeper player pool can only add to Racing’s competitiveness going forward. It’ll create competition amongst the players earn the start and will raise the bar for what’s considered “good enough”. And with powerhouses like Nadim, Salmon, and Bonner coming in, that bar will be higher than ever. But, as Coach Holly said, what a great problem for a team to have.