Too Good to Be True: An Interview with Racing Louisville Star Ebony Salmon

Authors’ note: Quotes in this article were edited slightly for clarity.

This is the second of five interviews featuring Racing Louisville’s international players that will be published during the off-season. These profiles are a collaboration between the Beautiful Game Network and Fleur de Lis FC. Michael Shaw of Fleur de Lis FC is a contributing author on this article. 

Check out the series’ 1st profile on Emily Fox here.

 

On a hot afternoon in late June, Ebony Salmon sat on the bench watching her new team Racing Louisville play the Houston Dash at home. The match remained nil-nil through the first half and much of the second. Salmon, a 20-year-old English native, had been watching carefully and was certain she could make an impact once she was subbed on. She just had no idea how immediate that impact would be.

“It all happened so quickly,” said Salmon with a light laugh as she thought back on the goal, “because I was literally on the pitch for not even a minute.”

In the 71’ Salmon was subbed into the match for her NWSL debut. Also in the 71’, she split four defenders and scored the goal that would end up the game-winner. The reaction around the league and beyond was immediate. BBC Sport featured it on their website. SportsCenter chose the goal as their number one play of the day

“After the game, it took me quite a while to realize what actually happened because it all happened so quickly and it was kind of like too good to be true.”  

Although this match was the young Brit’s first NWSL match, she’d already been a professional footballer for several years in the English FA Women’s Super League prior to joining Racing in June. She’d come from England to challenge herself in a new environment and hopefully raise her stock in the eyes of the English national team. By all accounts, she was doing just that.

We chatted earlier this month via Zoom shortly after Racing’s inaugural season had ended. Salmon was staying in Louisville a couple more weeks to train ahead of England’s planned November camps. Although our conversation covered everything from her career in the WSL to her thoughts on American soccer fans and everything else in between, we started at the beginning when Salmon first became focused on football: As a kid being coached by her dad. 

Proving Everyone Wrong

Salmon began playing football around the age of six at home with her brothers. It didn’t take long for her parents to realize their daughter had a real talent, so they started looking for a local girl’s team. Unfortunately, there weren’t any, so Ebony’s father took the matter into his own hands.

“At the time, local to where I’m from, there weren’t any girls teams, so then my dad, he’s been a coach for years and he decided to create a team for me. Originally it was meant to be a girls team, but they couldn’t get enough girls to create a team. So then it ended up being that he created a boys team and I played on that boys team and I ended up playing on that team for 8 years.”

Salmon had no trouble meeting and often exceeding the better boys’ skill level which let her and her parents know that she was especially talented. Playing professionally as a woman was just starting to become a viable career when Salmon was a young teen. So when she was about 13 or 14, her parents explained that she’d need to join an academy if she was going to get to the next level.

“My parents spoke to me and they basically said to me that if I wanted to make a career out of it and take football a lot more seriously, I needed to go and play with girls and be in a girl academy. Because at the end of the day, I was going to end up playing with girls and women, not boys.”

“That was a tough transition,” she admits. “Looking back now, I’m glad I did it when I did.  I’m glad I had the years I did playing with boys because I got a lot out of that, which I probably wouldn’t have gotten better with girls.  I think it was the right time for me to move into an academy, move into that environment.  So when I was 14, I moved into the Aston Villa academy.“

Salmon spent three years in the academy before moving up to Aston Villa’s first team in the WSL 2 during the 2017-18 season. During her season with the team, she had seven goals in 12 appearances, including a last-second draw against Sheffield in a 2017 WSL Cup match.

In July 2018, Salmon moved to the brand-new Manchester United women’s team that was playing in the WSL 2 which had just been rebranded as the FA Women’s Championship. In January 2019, she was loaned to Sheffield for the rest of the season before being released by Manchester United having never made an appearance. 

“When I got released from Man United it was hard to deal with,” Salmon told BBC’s “MOTDX In the Making” while back in England earlier this year. “It was a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. At that point, I was really down.” 

She next signed with Bristol City, a move she says gave her exactly what she needed to thrive. In her two seasons with Bristol, Salmon scored 11 goals in 34 appearances. These numbers are even more admirable considering this was a team constantly under the threat of regulation. In the 2019-20 season, Salmon’s five goals tied her for eighth place in the WSL’s top goal scorers alongside big names like Jordan Nobbs and Daniëlle van de Donk

Of the goals scored there, one stands out to Salmon: The game-winner against Manchester United. Scoring against the team and the coach who didn’t think she was good enough was a defining moment for the young player.

“That was probably one of the moments that proved to everyone that they were wrong,” Salmon told the BBC

Thanks to her strong play at Bristol, Salmon received her first cap with the senior national team in January 2021 against Northern Ireland.

“I was obviously excited and it was a really proud moment for me,” said Salmon of her first senior cap. “I definitely wasn’t expecting it. I’ve always said I’m going to focus on club football, and if I’m performing and doing what I need to be doing, then the international will take care of itself.  At the time it came, I was playing well at club and I was scoring goals, but I didn’t expect the call-up. To get the call up was a really good moment for me.”

Salmon in training with the England senior team / Image courtesy Racing Louisville

“I Was Meant to Be Here”

By the time her second season in Bristol started, Salmon and her family felt it was time to move onto another club. When her agent suggested moving to America, she was initially adamant it wasn’t for her. That ended the conversation until a few months later in December when her agent suggested it again. This time Salmon paused to consider it. There were a few clubs interested but Racing stood out. The new club’s ambitions matched hers and it was ultimately the only club she was interested in speaking to at length. With the 2021 NWSL starting in early Spring, Salmon had to make her decision fairly quickly.

“It seemed like a really good club with really good foundations. And one of the things for me was not going to a club where they had all of these great players and I was going to have no chance to play in a game. For me, at this point in my career, the main thing is to be playing and getting minutes.  

“I think Racing balanced out between the facilities, the players, and having a really good opportunity and a chance to fight for minutes.  Then I had plenty of conversations with my agent and my family and I decided to sign with Racing and I decided this in January of this year.”

Originally the plan was for her to come over at the start of the season, but Bristol was in a relegation battle so they nixed that plan. They wouldn’t let her go until they were either mathematically up or mathematically down in the standings. That, unfortunately, wasn’t resolved until the last match of the season. And so Salmon finally arrived in Louisville in June. The warmth and welcoming atmosphere of her new club helped her feel at home immediately.

“One of the main things I was worried about was obviously coming into a new group not knowing anyone, and not being comfortable. Those feelings were literally squashed within my first day here. All the girls made me feel so comfortable. All the staff made me feel so comfortable and it just felt like I was meant to be here.”

Four players in white jerseys walk off the field. The two in front are arm in arm.
Salmon gets a hug from teammate Gemma Bonner after the Houston match in June / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos
Salmon and teammate Taylor Otto goof off for the cameras ahead of an early September match. Taylor stands with her arm around Ebony giving the peace sign while Ebony hugs her back with one arm.
Salmon and teammate Taylor Otto goof off for the cameras ahead of an early September match / Image courtesy Connor Cunningham

After her spectacular debut in that June game against Houston, Salmon continued to have a strong showing for Racing. She led the team in goals (6) and assists (3) on the season, which is impressive considering she arrived almost two months after nearly everyone else. 

Still, being on a first-year team is tough. It means weathering highs and lows and building a culture from scratch. New teams have historically ranked towards the bottom of the table and Racing was no different with their ninth-place finish. 

In their final three matches, however, Racing began to build some momentum. They beat Orlando 3-1 in one of Salmon’s best showings ever. She scored the equalizer in the dying minutes of the first half and then came back assisted on the other two in the second. Unsurprisingly, she later called this her favorite match of her career

When asked about her feelings on her role in the match, Salmon defers from speaking about herself and her fantastic showing. Instead, she chooses to talk about the game as a whole team victory.

“We were on a really bad run. I believe we hadn’t won for seven or eight games. For us as a team, we were obviously frustrated with that. Personally, for me, I hadn’t scored in quite a few games which was frustrating for me. I think there were players out there who hadn’t been playing a lot. Maybe this was their opportunity, playing in front of a record crowd, a home crowd. That was an opportunity for people to prove themselves and to show what they do, and I think every person on that pitch in that game did that. They showed what they could do. Everyone gave 100%. “

She continued, “We went one goal down and previously people have seen us go one goal down, and then we go two goals down, three goals down and we’re out of the game. I think the fight to get back in the game to go 1-1 and then to go and win the game 3-1 shows a lot about us as a team and it showed people what we can do, probably something they hadn’t seen before that game.”

In Racing’s final two games, they drew Gotham 1-1 and ended with the most points earned in an inaugural season by any expansion team in NWSL history. Salmon says that these more recent successes are a reward earned by a team that’s struggled, but believed in their potential from the beginning. 

“We know we can do it and we’ve always known we can do it.  We’ve got the foundations. We’ve got everything we need to support us to make us as good as we can be as a team. For me, it’s us as players and staff focusing on consistency and doing it week in and week out, not just one week and then in two weeks falling off a little bit and then showing up again.”

As for ending in ninth place, Salmon said the team had spoken about the expectations that come with being a new team. While they never used being an expansion team as an excuse for their losses, they do understand that this season was more about building solid foundations. Salmon is certain they’ve achieved that.

“Sometimes it’s hard to set expectations for a brand-new club because you don’t actually know where you’re going to be at. For this club, we have everything we need to be able to be one of the best teams in this league.  We just had to take this season as it came.  We had to take the highs from this season and carry that momentum into the next season, and we have to learn from the low moments, learn from the losses, learn from the games where we were 1-0 up and we conceded in the last minute.  Those are the moments if we change those, where we can really change our season for the better next year.”

Salmon grins after scoring against KC
Salmon grins after scoring against KC / Image couresty Connor Cunningham

“One of the Best Places To Be”

When reflecting on her time in Louisville, Salmon has nothing but positive things to say about the city and the fans. Although women’s soccer is big in England, she says it’s a bigger deal in the United States with the NWSL. While English fans get pulled away by the ever-dominant men’s sides, women’s soccer in the U.S. is able to be bigger in its own right – especially in a small market like Louisville where there’s very little pro-sports competition.

“I think Louisville is one of the best places to be in terms of fans. With how small the state is, it means there are less people, but this is probably the main event which means everyone gets involved in it.”

Being the main event also means getting noticed. Since coming to Louisville, she’s been recognized by fans while out and about more than she ever expected. According to her, that isn’t something that would be likely to happen in England. 

“I think for me, that was kind of a shock, coming here and having that happen quite often,” she said with a laugh. “But obviously it’s a good feeling that people notice you and know who you are. It just shows the impact that Racing Louisville and women’s football is having in Louisville.”

Salmon will remain in Louisville for another week to train in the hopes of being called into one of the upcoming November camps for England. Although she was called into the senior team in January and again over this summer, she was called into the U23s during the most recent FIFA window in October. Although it was a bit frustrating to join the youth team after senior call-ups, she’s aware of the benefits, too. For example, in this summer’s camp with the senior team, she didn’t play a minute. In October’s U23 camp, she didn’t just play, she was made captain.

“There’s obviously that balance between training with those[first team] players and not playing and then taking a step down to the U23s and also being able to play minutes against other international countries,” she explained. “I know we’ve got camps coming up for the U23s where we are playing against some country’s first teams. They are still giving us those experiences and that will put me in a good stead for that first team whenever those call ups come.”

Still, Salmon’s goal is to become a national team mainstay and she knows she still has plenty of time to make that a reality.

“I don’t want to be the kind of player who is in and out every couple of years, every couple of months. I want to be involved in that environment throughout my career. I know, I’m obviously still young and I’ve got a long time to play for England.”

With the year she’s had at Racing and all signs pointing to her only growing as a player in the future, there’s little doubt that Salmon is poised to take a starring role on the international stage sooner rather than later. At only 20, she is one of the youngest, brightest prospects for England, but also in women’s soccer worldwide. Regardless of where her career takes her once her contract is over with Racing in 2023, we’ll certainly be watching her career advance for both club and country for many years to come.

 

A Look at Salmon’s Best Performances by Michael Shaw

a chart showing the movement of the ball during Salmon's goal against the Houston Dash
A chart demonstrating the movement of the ball from Freja Olofsson (8) to Savannah McCaskill (7) to Ebony Salmon (9) for her goal against the Houston Dash in June 2021 / Image by Michael Shaw, Fleur de Lis FC

Ebony Salmon had an auspicious debut in a Racing uniform, to say the least. The goal she scored against Houston was special in so many ways. First, it was scored less than a minute into her NWSL debut. Second, it was a goal where there were 5 defenders in the box (not including the goalkeeper) when she took the shot, but one magical touch took all of them out of the play prior to the finish. Lastly, she positioned herself nicely prior to the shot, which set up the terrific finish. 

Scoring so early into her debut, and having that goal be the deciding goal in her first match must have been a dream for Salmon. To hear her talk about it, most of the action that led to scoring the goal was standard operating procedure. She ran with Savannah McCaskill because that is what you do when a player that likes to dribble has that much open space.  

According to Salmon, “Whenever I saw Sav get on the ball, I hadn’t been here that long, but I knew Sav is good at and that’s driving at the backline, carrying the ball. I just knew I needed to make a run in behind. I think I was kind of running with Sav at this point, slightly ahead of her, and then I got to a point where Sav was going to release the ball because there was nowhere else for her to really run because we were on the edge of Houston’s 18-yard box.”  

As she received the ball, her first touch took her to her left which positioned her in the middle of the top of the box, but with her back to goal. Next, she attempted a backheel to turn herself, which bounced off a defender, but fortuitously bounced right back to her as she was rotating herself toward goal. At this point, there was a defender just outside the D at the top of the box (preventing any backward play). There were defenders also covering Sav, Yuki, and Katie Mac (I just made that up, but I like that name), and two defenders on Ebony. She basically went with her only, instinctual option.  

Salmon said, “I would say it was instinct because I wouldn’t usually try to turn in the box when there’s that many defenders. I think I just saw the gap open up, so I tried it and beat the two defenders on either side of me and it was just 1v1 with the keeper.”  

The severely angled touch she took exploited the two Dash defenders closest to her and she split between the two of them to find herself 1 on 1 with the keeper.  

“Those are the types of finishes I work on every day in training. I knew that at that point I had done all of the hard work and just had to finish it.”  

The finish was sublime as well. The defenders were recovering to close in on her, so Salmon didn’t have a ton of time to set up her finish. Watch carefully and you will see Ebony stutter step to get herself in prime shooting position for her finishing touch. That next touch ends up being perfectly placed in the back corner of the net.

Salmon was the team leader in league goals and second in goals/minute behind Nadia Nadim. However, for long stretches of the season, she found herself playing isolated as the sole outlet between 2 central defenders as Racing struggled for goals and points after their Women’s Cup triumph. If Racing as a team were in need of something magical during a 9-match winless stretch in the NWSL, Salmon was also in need of something special to break out of her personal 7-match scoreless drought. On October 16th, Ebony Salmon put on the best offensive display by any player so far in a Racing Louisville kit.

Fotmob.com rated her as Player of the Match with a 9.0 rating. That rating was mostly boosted by her stat line of a goal and two assists. The goal was assisted by Yuki Nagasato who fortuitously played her interception of a very sloppy Orlando pass directly into Ebony’s path. Ebony was by herself in the middle of the pitch about 10 yards outside of the 18-yard box. She quickly dribbled to the edge of the box and hit a nice curling effort into the top right corner of Orlando’s net. This goal turned out to be monumental in Racing’s late-season surge of 5 points in 3 matches. In Racing’s history, it could be the goal where the club turned a corner. It was the first league match where Racing trailed and was able to recover points. This then happened in the next two matches which showed a change in mentality.  

Ebony’s other two contributions came in the form of a return of the favor assist to Yuki for the last goal, which was a well-timed and well-placed pass. The previous assist came after she almost scored her second of the evening. This time with her back to goal she spotted Katie McClure’s run and a clever backheel took out her defender and played Katie into just enough space to slot home her first-ever NWSL goal.  Like Salmon said of that match, “Everyone seemed to be 100% on their game.”

Salmon in a death grip with Orlando’s Toni Pressley in Racing’s last match at home / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos

Author

Bekki Morgan

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