At the risk of sounding hackneyed, being an expansion team in the NWSL is a lot like riding a rollercoaster. There are long, slow climbs upwards followed by sudden heart-wrenching drops. And, if you’re lucky, there are thrilling, unexpected twists thrown in, too.
Racing started August by going undefeated in four games across all competition. This is the first undefeated streak for Racing ever and it took a long, slow climb to get there. This past weekend, in a twist almost no one saw coming, they beat Bayern in the Women’s Cup championship and earned their first trophy. And, now, they’ve followed that up with a loss to the tenth-place team in the league in one of their worst performances ever. That, unfortunately, was the inevitable sudden drop.
Racing Louisville fell to Kansas City NWSL 1-2 on Wednesday in Kansas. After an incredibly flat first half, Racing was able to rally somewhat in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their hosts. A large number of games in short succession plus the high of winning a tournament had clearly taken a toll on the team.
Immediately after the match, I tweeted that this game felt like a hangover. I was only slightly surprised to find out that Coach Christy Holly used this exact language in his post-game press conference.
“We entered the game with what looks like a hangover — a bit of a mist or a fog from the busy schedule we’ve had,” said Holly. “You could tell right away we weren’t ready from the very first kick of the game. It was a question of how long we could absorb it.”
Unfortunately, that question was answered fairly quickly. In the first 16 minutes of the match, Michelle Betos was forced to save or block five shots from five different Kansas City players. Racing could barely get the ball out of their own half. In the 17′, disaster struck as Erin Simon mishit a clearance and scoring an own goal that put Kansas City up 1-0. Then, in the 40′, a run from Kristin Hamilton beat both Gemma Bonner and Michelle Betos putting Racing down by two.
At the start of the second half, Racing came back on looking a bit more like themselves. In the 65′, Racing managed a lovely build-up out of the back that culminated in a goal from Cece Kizer. Despite ample time remaining, Racing was unable to find an equalizer and the score remained 2-1 for Kansas City.
By The Numbers
There’s very little that stats can say about Racing’s performance that wasn’t immediately evident to those watching.
Kansas City was able to get off too many shots (14) while Racing got too few (6). Consequently, Betos was forced into too many saves (6) while opposing keeper Adrianna Franch only needed one. Passing accuracy was a mediocre 73.9%, way worse than the 83% Racing earned against Chicago a week ago. While it was better than Kansas City’s dismal 66.7%., it’s frustrating that Racing couldn’t take advantage of their opponent’s sloppy passing. Which leads to possession…
Increasingly, Racing has been dominating in possession which seems like it would be a good thing. For instance, in this match Racing maintained just over 61% possession. Against Chicago, they managed similar numbers. And yet, Racing is once again getting obliterated in shots and shots on goal. Possession doesn’t mean much if you’re just uselessly passing back or laterally instead of progressing forward.
More worryingly, it also means teams are getting better at reading Racing. They know they can sit back and wait for a poor clearance or dispossession and quickly counter for a shot, if not a goal. And with Racing playing up so high without keeping a defender back, they’re giving opponents too many chances at a completely open goal.
Racing needs to start thinking about shifting formations or tactics if they’re becoming this easy to work through. While they shouldn’t sit back like they tried to do against Gotham, holding Bonner or Riehl back a bit more would at least provide a little more security.
During the match, commentators put a lot of weight into how fatigued Racing must be after their busy schedule. Holly agreed, to some extent, saying that there was probably “a bit of fatigue in the legs.” This match was Racing’s fourth in 10 days with the fifth coming in just a few days later on Sunday. Playing in a heat index that reached nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit certainly didn’t help either.
I do think physical fatigue did play a role in this match. Many of the starters of this match weren’t fully rested during the week even if they didn’t start in Saturday’s final. Ebony Salmon, Yuki Nagasato, Savannah McCaskill, and Gemma Bonner all came in as second half subs against Bayern. They’d all played a full match in the previous Wednesday’s draw against the Chicago Red Stars, also. So there’s no doubt tiredness was a factor. Still, I blame mental exhaustion more than physical exhaustion for this loss.
Racing put everything they had into winning the Women’s Cup. They may not be better than Bayern in terms of raw skill and experience, but they wanted that trophy more and made sure they got it. In Wednesday’s match, Kansas City wanted it more. They were at home, they were energized by the acquisition of Franch, and they knew this was their best chance to get points all season. Kansas City had the right mentality and the right chemistry while Racing’s tank was empty.
“We’re far enough along in the season where we know we can’t show up to any place and do that,” said Betos of the team’s first half performance. “It’s a tough month. Games are coming hard and fast. We have to have short-term memories and move forward.”
I can’t help but wonder if more rotation would have helped instead of just playing a clear-cut A team for league matches and B team for friendlies. Jorian Baucom is probably still soaring after her incredible goal against Bayern. Maybe she would have been better as a starter than a sub against Kansas City. Erin Simon started all three matches this week. Maybe it would have been better to start Julia Ashley who didn’t even dress for Saturday’s game and is probably hungry for minutes. Or maybe these changes would have made no difference at all or even had a negative impact. It’s impossible to know.
As said innumerable times before, this is a young team in both age and experience. Mental resilience is something that’s built over time. Racing has shown that they can pull out surprising twists when they’re hungry for them. Now they need to learn how to pace themselves so the drop isn’t quite so steep on the other side.
If there’s a bright spot to be found in this match, it’s that Racing did come back noticeably stronger in the second half. Coach Holly called it a “tale of two halves” after the match.
“We came out the second half, and I’ve got to give full credit,” said Holly. “It’s a testament to who they are in how they want to do things. They’re not going to go down without a fight. They got after the game in the second half and created some good opportunities.”
For several games now – including this month’s matches against Chicago and Gotham – Racing has come out strong in the first half only to stutter dangerously in the second after teams make adjustments. It’s good to see that Racing can also make adjustments in the second half and at least earn a goal back.
Racing did have a couple of moments where you could see the potential this team has. The give and go to earn Kizer’s goal is a great example of this. For the entire sequence, everything snapped together for one perfect minute. Players positioned themselves well and showed great awareness of their teammates’ movements. Passes were quick and precise and Racing was fully in control. Moments like this give a hint of who Racing might be in the future. Although Kansas City is also an expansion team, some of their players have been teammates for years in Utah and in the previous Kansas City franchise. Racing has not had this luxury. It’ll take time for them to build the chemistry needed to execute plays like this on the regular.
Racing’s next matches are against the Houston Dash, OL Reign, and Orlando Pride. Previously, they’ve beaten Houston, lost to the Seattle, and drawn Orlando. While it’s very possible they’ll get at least a point from one of these matches, none of them will be easy. Houston, in particular, will be on just a few days rest. If Racing looked this gassed against Kansas City, who knows what they’ll look like against the Dash.
This loss coming after the exhilarating high of winning the Women’s Cup certainly feels like a punch in the gut. Players and fans alike probably feel a lot like Gemma Bonner after she took a point-blank shot to the face in the second half.
While this serves as a good reminder of how inconsistent new teams are, it shouldn’t cloud the joyous moments that have come before. This is a talented team that’s done some incredible things. Look at Brook Hendrix’s equalizer against Orlando. Michelle Betos’ countless almost miraculous saves. Emina Ekic coming off the bench and winning Racing’s first game at home. Ebony Salmon’s first goal in under a minute. Yuki Nagasato’s goal in the Women’s Cup final. And, of course, Katie Lund’s heroic performance in the penalty kickoff against Bayern.
Collectively, we’ve just taken a sudden drop, but we’re only a little over halfway through the ride. There’s a lot more work to be done and some more steep climbs to power through. But, if we’re lucky, there’ll be a few more exciting twists just around the corner.