Shifting Fortunes: Racing Louisville Settle for a Draw in Orlando

Sometimes a draw feels like a win, as it did when Racing Louisville dramatically came back to tie the Orlando Pride in the 93rd minute of their debut match. And sometimes it feels more like a loss, as it did on Friday night as Racing conceded a goal in the final minute of stoppage time to none other than the Orlando Pride.

Still, there are more positives than negatives for Racing to take away from Friday’s match. This was arguably the best 90-plus minutes of football the team has ever played. They controlled much of the game, held possession well, had better passing accuracy, allowed fewer shots, and so on. If last week’s match against Portland felt like a regression, this game, by almost every angle, feels like a solid step forward.

Sure, a late goal stings. How can it not? And there are definitely areas Racing still need to work on – namely finishing. But the team showed maturity during this match that they have been lacking up until this point. They looked like a real, solid NWSL team and not an expansion side. That’s pretty high praise for a club that’s only a third of the way through their debut season going up against the number two team in the league.

“Obviously we’re really disappointed with a tie,” said Emily Fox after the match. “But I definitely think we can learn from this and also be positive about it because we did control the game and we did play well besides the last couple minutes.”

Coach Christy Holly agrees, saying: “We can feel the sting of this and the hurt that we gave up two points at the very end, but the performance is what we want and the stepping stone that we needed as we continue to move forward.

“This club is four months old, five months old,” said Holly with a laugh. “We just played against – what did they have? Three World Cup winners on the field? For us to go toe-to-toe, for us to compete within that game, and for large parts control that game – it’s exceptionally pleasing.”

With a top player, like Nadia Nadim, yet to join the club and rookies like Fox and Emina Ekic just beginning to show their talent, Racing still has a lot of room for additional growth. Only nine games into their inaugural regular season, they’re getting points in every match played except against the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage. Racing remains undefeated in the regular season against every team but those two historic juggernauts. Louisville’s been competitive from the get-go and will only continue to grow stronger as the season moves on.

“We’re such a young team and we’re learning every single week,” said Gemma Bonner, who returned to the pitch this match after resting due to a minor injury. “Each week poses a new challenge and I think, for us, probably the biggest compliment is how Orlando celebrated at the end when they tied the game.  We’ve got to learn from it. It hurts. We know we probably should have won the game. But it’s a game of both boxes. We had chances that we didn’t put away. So we’ll learn from it and definitely move forward and learn from this.”

Emily Fox against Syd Leroux
Emily Fox takes on Orlando’s Syd Leroux and Ashlyn Harris – Image courtesy ISI Photos

By the Numbers

In his pre-game press conference on Wednesday, Holly said the team was going into this match focusing on how to better control the tempo and direction of the match. By almost every metric, Racing accomplished this.

For the first time since their draw against Kansas City to open the regular season, Racing held the majority of possession with 51.5%. Being able to control games is something Racing has lacked with their possession averaging around 45% for the entire season. As the players become more comfortable with each other and start learning each other’s movements, this should continue to improve.

Racing also led in passing accuracy – something they’ve only managed to do twice previously this season, against Kansas City and Houston. Racing had 75% accuracy compared to Orlando’s 73%. This isn’t their best, but it is an improvement from last week’s dire 70% against Portland.

Racing also continues to chip away at the number of shots taken by opponents each week. Michelle Betos leads the league by in saves by a mile, but her team seems to be giving her a much-needed break lately. Orlando only got off eight shots with two on goal. This is part of a continued downward trend in shots allowed by Racing. Even in rematches against the Thorns and the Courage, the number of shots allowed has dropped significantly. This seems to indicate that the team is finally gelling defensively, especially on the backline.

Chart showing downward trend of shots by Racing opponents
Shots taken and shots on goal by opponents versus Racing Louisville from May 15 to July 9, 2021.

It’s not a coincidence that the downward trend started in earnest once Gemma Bonner arrived. The skill and leadership she has displayed have dramatically impacted Racing on the pitch.

“Gemma has been amazing,” Fox declared emphatically post-match. “I want to give her so many compliments! On the ball, communicating, being a leader on and off the field… I think she’s been really huge for us, being vocal but also leading by example. Having Gemma has been amazing. We’re very excited to be playing with her.”

While Ebony Salmon has single-handedly improved Racing’s offense, the team is still struggling in offensive production. Their ability to produce shots – especially shots on goal – has been very inconsistent. The team seems to be getting better at creating chances, but they’re not finishing them. Far too frequently runs aren’t timed properly or attackers aren’t positioned to accept crosses. This is something else that should continue to improve as the players get used to each other’s movements. Plus, the eventual arrival of Nadia Nadim will add some veteran experience on the front line and take some pressure off of Salmon to constantly perform.

Chart showing inconsistent offense by Racing
Shots taken & shots on goal by Racing Louisville from May 15 to July 9, 2021.

 

Key Takeaways

Compared to the inaugural seasons of past expansion teams, Racing is doing pretty well.

Racing currently holds a 3-4-2 record. At this point in their first seasons, the Houston Dash were 1-7-1 and the Orlando Pride were 4-5-0. While the Pride had more wins at this point, Racing has fewer losses so it’s a bit of a wash. More critically, after this point, Orlando would go on to only win two more matches all season, ending with a 6-13-1 record. Racing seems to be improving as the season moves on which, hopefully, indicates that they won’t have this major drop-off in wins. As mentioned earlier, Racing is also still waiting to complete their roster with Nadim. A major player like this should boost them further.

Therefore, with just three more wins all season, Louisville will be the most successful expansion team in league history. And, looking ahead, this seems very possible.

As mentioned earlier, Racing remains undefeated against all teams besides the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns. Luckily for Louisville, their schedule was front-loaded with both getting the worst threat out of the way early. They’ve already played both teams twice. This means Racing is done with Portland for the rest of the regular season and they only play the Courage one final time. Racing has 15 matches remaining. Once again, they only need to win three out of fifteen to be the most successful expansion team in league history.

Up next, Racing faces the Washington Spirit who barely beat Racing in the Challenge Cup and lost to Racing in the regular season. This match will still fall under the Olympic window meaning key players like Kelley O’Hara, Saori Takarada, and Emily Sonnett will still be missing from their lineup. After that, they’ll face Seattle’s OL Reign for the first time. While Seattle is loaded with international talent who will not be competing in the Olympics, like Eugénie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán, they have drastically underperformed as a team. They currently sit in ninth place with a 2-5-1 record. After the Reign, Racing faces Kansas City, who sit in 10th place and have yet to win a match this season.

All three of these matches are potentially winnable for Racing. While they might not win or even draw all of them, they should be able to earn some points. As of writing this, they’re currently only one spot away from the playoffs. With 15 games left, they have a lot of time to move up the ranks and hold onto a higher position. No expansion team has ever made the playoffs in their first year. Currently, it is very possible for Racing to clinch it.

Of course, there are plenty of unforeseeable events that could occur that might dash Racing’s hopes. They might continue to struggle in the attack. They might have key players injured. Underperforming teams like OL Reign might suddenly click and start taking the league by storm. Or they might play very well and still get tied or edged out in the last minute, as they did on Friday.

Still, it’s undeniable this team is competitive. And, if trends continue, they’ll only keep getting better.

So when games like Friday’s match sting, it’s important to keep the big picture in context. Racing is poised to potentially do some surprising things this season. Even if they don’t shoot to the top of the table, they can still make history with just a few more wins.

And Gemma Bonner is correct: If the number two team in the league is elated to etch out a last-second draw against your brand new side, something’s obviously going very right for Racing Louisville.

Author

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville and the NWSL. Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @sukiisacat.