It has been a long, hard off-season for Racing Louisville fans, but the new season is just around the corner. The preseason roster is set with 30 players reporting over the next couple of weeks. So far 21 reported for the first practice team practice on Wednesday with the rest reporting in the coming weeks as off-season loans come to an end.
At practice, head coach Kim Björkegren said it was great to be back with the club. Despite some upheaval in the offseason related to the release of two reports on systemic abuse in U.S. women’s soccer, Björkegren said he feels the club is now on the right track.
“The club is doing a great job and the squad and the staff as well. We have good energy in the group and I really feel that we’re moving in the right direction. All I can promise is that when I look at this club and this group, the future is bright both on the pitch, but maybe even more off the pitch.”
In some ways, Racing is the most stable it’s ever been in terms of coaching continuity and roster stability. In other ways, the team’s been radically changed due to departures and club restructuring. Let’s take a look at everything that’s happened in the off-season — the staff, the draftees, the trades, and more — and what all of this might mean for Racing heading into the new season.
Starting off, let’s look at the club’s staff.
Björkegren’s return means Racing has the same head coach for a second consecutive year for the first time in its short history. Sergio Gonzalez also returns as the goalkeeper coach becoming the only member of the technical staff to remain from the first season. Julie Twaddle returns for a second year as the Head of High Performance.
In the offseason, Racing hired Bev Yanez as an assistant coach. Yanez previously spent two seasons as an assistant with NJ/NY Gotham FC. Prior to that, she was a professional player for over ten years and ended her career with OL Reign. As a result, she brings NWSL experience that Racing’s technical staff has lacked previously which will surely benefit the team in several ways.
She has @NWSL experience on the field and along the touchline. 🤝
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) November 23, 2022
Racing has also announced that they are hiring a general manager to oversee all of the team’s day-to-day operations. As part of their recently released corrective actions, the NWSL has determined that this new GM will report directly to team ownership instead of club president James O’Connor. Although this position was originally announced back in October, it has yet to be filled which left all offseason player management up to Björkegren, Yanez, and Gonzalez. While the coaching staff is more than capable of taking on these duties, Racing needs to get this position established so the club can function as intended. The longer it takes, the faster the new hire will have to integrate and hit the ground running.
All in all, the moves Racing has made in their staff in the offseason are positive. Expanding the staff spreads the weight of some of these major team responsibilities around to more people and will hopefully help the team function better. For example, it’s been said Yanez will focus on player development. This will allow Björkegren to focus more on game preparation and tactics. The GM will take on the brunt of player movement, recruitment, and management which will allow the coaching staff to focus on what they’re supposed to be focusing on: coaching. While there’s no guarantee these changes will immediately turn Racing into a playoff-bound team, they certainly don’t hurt and will likely only benefit the team in the long run.
Leading up to the 2023 college draft, it was clear Racing was focused on selecting Florida State center-back Emily Madril. Not only was Madril a two-time NCAA College Cup champion, but she also spent her summer playing for Racing Louisville’s W League squad. After the end of the W League season, she stayed in town for a couple of months to practice with a first team. After Gemma Bonner’s departure at the end of this past season, a highly skilled center-back who already had chemistry with the team was almost too good to be true.
And it did, unfortunately, end up being too good to be true. Racing learned the Orlando Pride were absolutely taking Madril with the third overall pick, so Racing decided to trade the fourth overall pick to Gotham in exchange for Paige Monaghan, $150,000 in allocation money, and an international spot for 2023. Selling a high first-round pick was somewhat controversial, but post-draft Björkegren made it clear that they were going Madril or bust for the first round.
“In our preparation leading up to today, there was only one center back we wanted, but on draft day, it became clear we weren’t going to have that chance at No. 4,” said Björkegren. “We sought the best value for our pick, and we moved for a player in Paige Monaghan who has league experience, a great personality, and positional versatility. She will be a great addition to our team.”
With the rest of their four picks — two in the second round, and one each in the third and fourth rounds — Racing made the following selections: Kayla Fischer, a forward out of Ohio State, Brianna Martinez, a defender with U.S. youth national team experience out of Notre Dame, Jadyn Edwards, a forward out of the University of New Mexico, and Riley Parker, a forward out of the University of Alabama.
Going into the draft, Racing most desperately needed help in center-back, followed by outer back, followed by wingers, followed by attackers. Martinez and Monaghan can play as outer backs, Monaghan can also play as a winger, as can Fischer. Edwards and Parker both fill the need for center forward depth with Racing’s Nadia Nadim, Emina Ekic, and Thembi Kgatlana currently out with injuries. The fact they filled in many of these holes is good for Racing, but the failure to take a center-back or more than one defender caused many to criticize the team’s draft strategy.
In some ways, Björkegren’s refusal to accept a center-back draftee other than Madril makes sense. Racing didn’t just need a center-back, they needed a pro-ready starter with the smallest learning curve possible. And although there were some strong candidates available, none of them had the draw of Madril. So deciding to sell off their top pick to receive money plus an experienced NWSL veteran in Monaghan did allow the team to fill a need — a winger who can play defense and offense — and gave them some extra funds to use towards buying more established players.
But with the critical need for a center-back still lingering, Racing would need to take drastic measures. And that’s exactly what they did.
Last week, Racing made headlines when they traded star defender and U.S. national team member Emily Fox to the North Carolina Courage for defenders Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett.
This trade was initially shocking because Fox was Racing’s most prominent player and definitely one of the most talented. On North Carolina’s side, Pickett and particularly Erceg were mainstays on the squad and core to the Courage’s identity. Once the dust settled, however, it became clear that this was solid and, frankly, necessary trade from Racing’s perspective.
First, Erceg is one of the most experienced and accomplished center-backs in the league as both a three-time league champion and three-time shield winner with the Western New York Flash/North Carolina Courage. She’s also the former captain of the New Zealand national team and was the first Kiwi player to ever reach 100 caps. Erceg is a tall, agile central defender with almost 20 years of professional experience including eight seasons in the NWSL. Her joining Racing more than fills the gaping need for a center-back and also provides the team with additional much-needed NWSL experience and veteran guidance along the backline.
An experienced defender at the club and international level. 👊
Get to know @abbyerceg. ⬇️
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) January 24, 2023
Second, if you’re going to lose Emily Fox, Carson Pickett is about as excellent a left back as you could possibly replace her with. Pickett is known for her excellent precision and Björkegren called her one of the best attacking outer backs he’s ever seen. Last year, she was the league’s assist leader and has made the NWSL’s best XI two seasons in a row in 2021 and 2022. She’s also recently come to the attention of the U.S. national team and has earned two caps in the past year. Like Erceg, Pickett also brings much-needed NWSL experience after spending six years in the league.
The biggest criticism about this trade from Racing fans is that Fox was a player to build on for the future. At only 25 years old, she’s already one of the best defenders in the league. There’s no question that she’ll only continue to improve. While Erceg and Pickett are extremely talented, they’re also older and less likely to be foundational long-term fixes for the team.
However, the fact of the matter is that without signing a contract extension, Emily Fox was going to become a qualified free agent in 2024. During Wednesday’s practice, Björkegren revealed that Fox had told him that she was looking to move on to “a new challenge” and wasn’t planning an extension. This means she could have started fielding offers from interested teams as early as August of this year. And if she accepted an offer and didn’t sign an extension, Racing would get nothing for her.
With this context, this trade makes perfect sense and actually becomes a huge win for Racing. They turned one immensely talented player into two immensely talented players in desperately needed positions. And Fox was never going to be a player to build off of considering she wasn’t planning on staying. Also, Racing, frankly, has a huge amount of young talent to build off already. Katie Lund, Jaelin Howell, Savannah DeMelo, and Lauren Milliet are all mainstays who are 26 or younger. All of them have also recently signed extensions through 2025. So Racing has enough young talent. What they needed more than anything outside of key positions was league experience and they’ve got buckets of it with Pickett and Erceg.
.@Cars_Pickett16's passing = precise. 👊
Get to know our new left back. ⬇️
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) January 25, 2023
Even better, Pickett and Erceg clearly already have chemistry after playing together for two seasons. Pickett also has experience playing with Julia Lester from their days in Cyprus when both were with the Apollon Ladies who were coached by Björkegren. This means going into 2023, Racing will have three defenders with some form of chemistry already established and at least two with chemistry already with their coach. Considering one of Racing’s biggest weaknesses last season was an unstable, constantly rotating backline, this is a major improvement.
As good as this trade is for Racing, it’s still extremely sad to see Emily Fox go. The impact she had on this team is immeasurable and immediately evident by the outpouring of grief that initially came with the trade announcement. Fox was the first player we ever saw on the pitch with Racing Louisville next to her name when she played for the U.S. national team in February of 2021 shortly after being drafted. Seeing her excel and move into an unquestionable starting spot for the U.S. has been a huge source of joy for many supporters. And in an extremely tough couple of years filled with painful and traumatic revelations about abuse and misconduct by former coach Christy Holly, in many ways, watching Fox succeed has been the clearest and most untarnished throughline.
All reports indicate she’s a stand-up person as well. Although less willing to put herself in the spotlight, Fox is one of the more thoughtful and introspective players I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to in interviews. Over the years, numerous sources have also shared that she’s been an important leader behind the scenes and a key member of the locker room. So as great as Erceg and Pickett are and as much as it can be argued that Racing won this trade, it’s still hard to see Foxy go. And even though players moving on is part of the sport, it’ll be hard to see her in a non-Racing kit for the first time in her professional career. Even if it stings, though, there’s no question Louisville fans still love her and most will follow the rest of her career closely wherever it may take her.
Other new additions and extensions
Pickett, Erceg, and Monaghan aren’t the only new additions to Racing this season. Racing has also added Brazilian midfielder Ary Borges and Finnish defender Elli Pikkujämsä. Both are very young players who are new to the NWSL, but both come with a lot of potential. Earlier in the offseason, it was a little more worrying that Racing was once again acquiring players who’ve never been tested by the NWSL, but the additions of Monaghan, Picket, and Erceg basically void any concerns in this area.
Although she’s been signed since last summer, South African superstar Thembi Kgatlana has finally arrived in Louisville. Last year, she ruptured her Achilles in the African Cup of Nations during World Cup qualifying. Thankfully she’s ahead of schedule in her recovery and might be available as soon as April. As a versatile attacker who describes herself as unpredictable, Kgatlana has the potential to be a real spark in Racing’s attack.
🗣 𝙄 𝙖𝙢 𝙖 𝙥𝙡𝙖𝙮𝙚𝙧 𝙛𝙪𝙡𝙡 𝙤𝙛 𝙨𝙪𝙧𝙥𝙧𝙞𝙨𝙚𝙨.
Hear more from @Kgatlanathe1st as she updates on her ankle rehabilitation and what #RacingLou fans can expect when she makes her debut later this year. 👉 https://t.co/LpFaVTtC8P pic.twitter.com/5XPAQWyyTN
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) January 27, 2023
Racing also made moves in locking down established players for years to come. Lauren Milliet and Savannah DeMelo both announced extensions at the tail end of last season. This January, extensions for Katie Lund and Jaelin Howell were also announced. All four players are now signed with the club through 2025 and will form a strong backbone of young talent that can be built off for the next several years. So, again, while losing Fox will sting for a long time, Racing is far from lacking in young talent.
Offseason grade and 2023 forecast
For the first time in its history, Racing is not undergoing a rebuild. Important changes have been made, but not to the extent that they happened last season. Of course, much of Racing’s turnover happened midseason last year with the high-profile departures of Ebony Salmon, Cece Kizer, Addisyn Merrick, and Freja Olofsson, to name a few. While more turnover is guaranteed to happen at the end of preseason in order to whittle the roster down to 26, there should be far less of a concern that there will be the same midseason disruption this year. After all, this isn’t a new coach coming in and learning how his team works as he goes. This is the same coach working with players he selected or who stayed consistent with him through 2022. That should keep Racing more stable than they have been previously.
With a stable roster, young talents like DeMelo, Howell, and Lund with a year of professional starts under their belts, and the additions of two extremely talented veterans, Racing is in pretty good shape heading into the new season. If talents like Borges, Kgatlana, and Wang Shuang (who played a few games last year before missing the final three matches of the year) live up to their potential, the team might make significant progress this season.
After all, Racing both struggled to score goals and stop goals and ended with a goal differential of -12 last season. This was still an improvement over 2021 when Racing had the worst differential in the league with -19, but it’s still not great. Adding Pickett and Erceg to the backline should guarantee that Racing gets scored on less. As far as scoring goals, Pickett may help with that, too, considering she has one of the most precise kicks in the league. Hopefully, Kgatlana and Borges can score some more goals and if draftees Parker and Edwards pan out, those are four new additions that can add some firepower. And in returning players, Savannah DeMelo has shown no sign of slowing down and Kirsten Davis was in good form as she gained more minutes at the end of the season. Finally, Jessica McDonald and Emina Ekic are coming off excellent off-season stints in Australia’s A-League and have the potential to add some more goals, too.
In short, Racing should score more goals and give up fewer this season. That should help them climb the standings. Are they playoff contenders? It’s hard to say, but they’re certainly more in a position to be contenders than they were going into the off-season. If Racing had managed to sign Fox and keep her, that would have been excellent in many ways, but it would have also left Racing without a center-back. Sure, they could have found one elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine one that was feasible who is a better fit than Erceg. And with Pickett coming, too, it’s hard to not feel that Racing is an improved squad in spite of losing Fox.
As far as a final offseason grade for Racing, I would give them a solid B to a B+. Immediately after the draft, they were definitely in more dire straits and C would be generous. It’s not that any of their draft picks were bad or that Borges or Pikkujämsä don’t have tons of potential, it’s that they had such a glaring need in finding defenders. By getting Pickett and Carson, they easily bumped their grade up significantly.
Of course, we still don’t know how long Pickett, Erceg, and Monaghan will sign for. If it’s just a year then Racing definitely takes the lower B grade. If they sign for several years, however, then this grade might bump all the way up to an A. After all, an A doesn’t mean they’ll absolutely make the playoffs or unquestionably dominate the league. It just means that they filled all their gaps more than satisfactorily and it’s clear that they have in the most glaring areas.
What the new season will bring is hard to guess, but, at least for now, it’s looking pretty good.
Update – 2/3/2023
And now it’s looking even better!
On Wednesday, Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf (full disclosure: I also write for Equalizer) broke the news that Racing was going to pay a record $150,000 transfer fee to Tigres UANL of Liga MX in exchange for star forward Uchenna Kanu. In addition to the transfer fee, Racing would also be sending newly signed draftee Riley Parker to Tigres until June or the close of the second half of Liga MX’s season. On Thursday, the move was officially announced along with the news that Kanu would be signing a two-year contract with Louisville.
Kanu is a 25-year-old Nigerian national team member who scored a whopping 23 goals in 38 appearances for Tigres. At the international level, she’s scored 10 goals in 12 caps — including the goal that broke the United States shut-out streak this past September.
With Kgatlana, Nadim, and Ekic all still recovering from injury, Kanu is unquestionably going to be a centerpiece of Racing’s attack right off the bat. And because she can play out wide or centrally with equal skill, she can simply move around to accommodate returning players.
As we’ve seen, adjusting to the NWSL can be a challenge for some players new to the league and everyone should be given time to acclimate. Still, Kanu is as close to a sure bet as one can get. After all, she doesn’t need to score a dozen goals to be impactful. She can score seven and still break the current single-season goal record for the club. Of course, she could also very easily score a dozen. She’s shown that she has that potential in her which is what makes her so exciting. (And if she does, Racing will owe Tigres another $30,000 in incentives — a fee they will surely pay with immense pleasure.)
Reflecting on the most recent movements that happened with Racing, it’s really interesting to see that Emily Fox was basically turned into Carson Pickett, Abby Erceg, and Uchenna Kanu. The trade where Racing gives Fox to the Courage in exchange for Pickett and Erceg is clear. But the $150,000 that was received as part of the Paige Monaghan trade with Gotham unquestionably would have gone to Fox’s extension should she have stayed. That’s not implying Racing had no additional money that they could have used to chase Kanu. They could have a ton for all I know. But they certainly had way more freedom to spend a league-recording-breaking amount to acquire her because they weren’t paying Fox’s salary.
As a result of this trade, Racing is unquestionably stronger than they were. Are they a playoff lock? That’s impossible to say, but they’re looking better than they ever have. A starting lineup that will include some combination of Jaelin Howell, Savannah DeMelo, Katie Lund, Uchenna Kanu, Carson Pickett, Abby Erceg, Wang Shuang, Jess McDonald, and eventually Thembi Kgatlana and Nadia Nadim is looking mighty solid across all lines. And that’s not even mentioning Paige Monaghan, Emina Ekic, Lauren Milliet, Alex Chidiac, Kirsten Davis, Julia Lester, and others.
As I said above, for the first time Racing is not rebuilding. Sure, there are some significant changes, but they’re building on top of what’s already been established instead of razing the whole thing and building from scratch. And depending on how long they’re able to sign Monaghan, Pickett, and Erceg, they might have this foundation in place for several years to come. What an enticing prospect that is.
Quick side note – Check out Michael Shaw’s preseason roster breakdown along with his predictions for who might get cut or transferred at the end of the preseason on his blog Fleur de Lis FC. Micheal is also keeping a live roster tracker on his site if you want to see contract lengths and signing info.