On an October morning back in 2019, Brad Estes, President of Soccer Holdings, LLC, made a bold proclamation.
Standing at a podium in the still-under-construction Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, Estes announced the newest NWSL expansion team to the world, saying, “We’re not here to participate. We’re not here to join the party, because in this club and in this town, we lift trophies – period.”
This was quite a declaration to make about a team that didn’t have a coach, a player, or even a name. And yet Estes’ statement proved to be prophetic.
On August 21, 2021, Racing Louisville beat Bayern Munich to become the winners of the inaugural Women’s Cup tournament. Less than two years after Estes’ proclamation and only five months into their inaugural regular season, Raising Louisville lifted their first trophy. Even better, they lifted it at home in front of a record crowd at Lynn Family Stadium.
Going into the tournament, the idea that Racing Louisville could win this tournament was preposterous in some people’s eyes. The team was sitting in ninth place in the league standings and had been for weeks. Although they’d shown significant potential, they were going against the likes of Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), and the Chicago Red Stars. Even if Racing could beat or draw the seventh-place Red Stars, the likelihood of beating the respective German and French league champions and Champion’s Cup semifinalists seemed too tall of an order.
And yet, after a couple of exciting games and several epic penalty kick shootouts, Racing Louisville were the ones lifting the hardware.
A Rare Showcase
Friendly inter-league tournaments and matches are fairly common in Europe. In the United States, however, they’re incredibly rare. The Women’s International Champion’s Cup (WICC) has existed for three years and took place in Portland on the same dates as the Women’s Cup. It’s the only other regular American-European competition in the world, at this moment. This means that the only place anyone in North America could see European teams play without traveling across an ocean was in Portland or Louisville.
And what teams they are! FC Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain are huge clubs known around the world. For them to come to Louisville in the very first year of Racing’s existence is a major statement from the Soccer Holdings in terms of how seriously they’re taking Racing and in how dedicated they are in building Louisville into a premiere destination for players and fans. Estes said Racing is going to be a team that lifts trophies. Committing to tournaments like the Women’s Cup show that Racing’s leadership are confident in the team and it’s future.
All teams in the tournament get a chance to grow their presence in a new country. It’s likely that scores of new fans in France and German heard about Racing Louisville for the very first time when this tournament was announced. And while PSG and Bayern may have huge name recognition, average attendance in both the German and French women’s leagues sits at about 1,500. While the numbers in the United States aren’t mindblowing, games are significantly better attended here. Getting the larger women’s soccer fanbase in this country to pay more attention to the European leagues -and vice versa – is a huge win for everyone involved.
“I think it’s big if you come from Europe as a club – and obviously FC Bayern is big in Europe – and make it big in the U.S., that’s definitely a goal,” said Bayern midfielder Sarah Zadrazil in a pre-tournament press conference. “I’m proud to be here and we are proud to be here to represent our club and, hopefully, increase our fanbase.”
And, finally, the tournament is a chance for fun, amidst all the in-fighting and territorial fights.
Day 1 – August 18, 2021
Bayern Munich vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Final Score: Bayern Munich 2(5) – Paris Saint-Germain 2(4)
The tournament opened with a match between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. The hot and muggy weather meant a good number of fans stuck to the shady concourse for much of the match, but even so, Bayern jerseys in the stands seemed to outnumber their French opponents. Fans of Bayern were in for a treat, as they got to see world-renowned midfielder Saki Kumagai don their jersey for the first time during this match. She’d missed all previous preseason matches due to the Olympics.
While both teams were clearly still a bit rusty due to the offseason and not fully acclimated to the heat of Louisville in August, they were able to shake it off and play some lovely, technically-focused European-style football.
Paris-Saint Germain was the first to score in the 19′ with a header from Marie-Antoinette Katoto off a cross from Sandy Baltimore. Bayern almost answered immediately with a close shot from Viviane Asseyi that was blocked then almost taken by Kumagi on the rebound. The clearance was gathered by Sarah Zadrazil, who was able to get shot off from the top of the box that went just wide.
Bayern would get an equalizer – and then some – in the final minutes of the first half. In the 43′, a rolling ball across the front of goal from Kumagai was collected and sent in by Linda Dallmann. Only a few minutes later in stoppage time, a free kick from Carolin Simon bounced off the crossbar towards Lea Schüller who headed it in for the go-ahead goal.
PSG was able to answer in the 57′ for the final goal of the night. A well-placed free kick from Baltimore found Hamraoui who headed it in for the equalizer.
The match ending in a tie led immediately to penalty kicks as no overtime was allowed in this tournament. This penalty shootout was actually the first in Lynn Family Stadium’s short two-year history. Who would have guessed the first penalty kickoff for a stadium in Louisville, Kentucky would be between two Champion’s League teams?
After six rounds of penalties, Bayern edged out PSG 5-4 off a shot taken by Swedish silver medalist Hanna Glas.
As a result of this match, Bayern advanced to the championship on Sunday night and PSG to the third-place match Sunday evening.
Racing Louisville vs. Chicago Red Stars
Final Score: Racing Louisville 1(5) – Chicago Red Stars 1(4)
As the match between PSG and Bayern began winding down, the stand became ever fuller as home team supporters began to file in. A then-record crowd of 7,310 fans attended – fantastic turnout for a Wednesday night.
This game also doubled as a league fixture, so, for the most part, both teams put out their typical starters. However, a last-second change for Racing put Cheyna Matthews in for Nadia Nadim as a precaution after Nadim felt tightness in her hamstring.
The scoring started early as Ebony Salmon stole the ball off of defender Danielle Colaprico at the top of the box and drove forward before nutmegging the keeper with her shot. Racing had a few good shots in this half, but the match would remain level for the remainder of the first half.
In the second half, Chicago came out swinging and stayed dominant for the duration. Mallory Pugh and Kealia Watt both had ample chances on goal that they failed to finish until Watt pounced on a poorly cleared ball in the 57′ and drew the match level. These results would stand until the final whistle meaning yet another penalty shootout was on its way.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 19, 2021
Coach Holly admitted after the match that the team didn’t practice any penalties all week. They wanted to focus on winning, not prepare for a draw. So when the time came to the order of players, he simply asked them to volunteer. In their seven months together, Racing had never earned a penalty kick so there was no telling what would happen.
Goalkeeper Michelle Betos stopped the Red Stars’ first try and Yuki Nagasato, Savannah McCaskill, and Sinclaire Miramontez all converted their shots. After Gemma Bonner’s miss, Lauren Milliet converted thanks to a lucky bounce off the left post bringing things level at 4-4. A wide shot from Chicago’s Rachel Hill gave Racing their chance to win it and Katie McClure was all too happy to seize the moment.
McClure took a low rolling shot to the left corner. The keeper guessed correctly but the shot slipped under her only to bounce off the post, hit the keeper’s back, and roll into the goal. Not the prettiest penalty ever taken, but it was enough to send Racing to the championship match.
“I’m not sure there were too many people who would’ve believed that if you told them 18 months ago,” said Coach Holly after the match.
“That’s a testament to the fans that have been supporting us and the ownership that has invested in us not only money but time, energy, and motivation to move this thing forward to give this incredible platform for women’s athletes. It’s a magnificent privilege but one that we definitely want to take advantage of and try and make a statement for this club and this city.”
Day 2 – August 21, 2021
Chicago Red Stars vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Final Score: Paris Saint-Germain 1 – Chicago Red Stars 0
For the third-place match, both teams opted for some lineup changes. PSG opted to rest Baltimore, who provided both assists against Bayern, and went with Alice Pinguet in goal over Charlotte Voll. The Chicago Red Stars made far more dramatic shifts with eight changes in starters from the match against Louisville.
In only the first minute of the match, a bad back pass from PSG was intercepted by Makenzy Doniak inside the penalty area. The ball was played out of bounds and PSG was lucky to earn a goal kick instead of going down by one early on. Chicago continued to press hard and keep PSG on their back foot through most of the first half.
In the 35′, however, a ball in from PSG’s Elisa De Almeida was chested down by Marie-Antoinette Katoto who volleyed it perfectly into goal. Chicago keeper Emily Boyd got a hand on it, but that wasn’t enough to stop PSG from scoring.
Adding Mallory Pugh in the second half did help bolster Chicago’s attack, but ultimately they would not be able to capitalize. The game ended 1-0 with PSG on top.
The most surprising aspect of this match was how competitive Chicago remained against PSG while playing primarily with their B-team. While Paris is in their preseason and has had some roster changes, they’re still one of the premier clubs in women’s soccer. At the time of this match, Chicago sat in seventh place in the NWSL, although they would move up the standings significantly in the following week. They also benched most of their starters. For them to go head-to-head with a top European team without their starters and do well is a testament to the strength of the league.
Racing Louisville vs. Bayern Munich
Final Score: Racing Louisville 2(7) – Bayern Munich 2(6)
The hometown came out to cheer on Racing on Saturday night. Wednesday night’s record was broken as 7,831 fans attended the championship match. This number is even more impressive considering season tickets sales applied to Wednesday night’s match, which included a league fixture, but not this one. Ticket sales had been somewhat anemic for Saturday, but once Racing got into the final, hometown fans showed up big and several thousand tickets were sold on Thursday and Friday alone.
Like Chicago, Racing made the decision to rest most of their starters for this match. Erin Simon, Michelle Betos, and Cheyna Matthews were the only holdovers from Wednesday’s starting 11. This decision gave many Racing fans pause. There was a trophy on the line, so why wasn’t Racing putting in every top player?
Racing would be facing two league fixtures coming in the coming week, so rest was a necessity. Holly took the strategy of banking on the heavily rotated starting 11 holding out through the first half without giving much up. Then, in the second half, mass substitutions could bring in star power off the bench after Bayern was tired. In order to win this tournament, practically every member of the team needed to step up big for their club.
Bayern also heavily rotated their starting lineup with only five field players returning from Wednesday. Unlike Racing, however, they actually rotated for more strength, bringing in three Olympians – Hanna Glas, Sofia Jakobsson, and Lineth Beerensteyn – as starters amongst others.
From the start, Racing was outplayed by Bayern. Still, Racing held on and stopped any major damage from happening. In the 30′, a risky back pass from Racing’s Brooke Hendrix to Betos was almost overtaken by the speedy Jakobsson. Because it was passed from a teammate, Betos was forced to come out and clear it instead of grabbing it and collided hard with Jakobsson when doing so. This was just the first of several hits Betos would take this night.
Bayern remained relentless throughout the half and Betos was forced to come up with several more big saves to keep things level. Yet another collision with Jakobsson kept Betos on the ground for several tense moments towards the end of the half. Even more worryingly, an injured Hendrix was forced to leave the field with several minutes remaining in the first half. Holly opted to save the substitution, however, and continue down a player until the whistle. Thankfully, Bayern wasn’t able to take advantage and the half ended nil-nil.
That would change only a few minutes into the first half with Bayern scoring in the 49′. Another risky back pass was intercepted by Bayern and this time Klara Bühl was able to take control and put it into the side netting. Racing wasn’t going down easy, though. In the 54′, Jorian Baucom muscled Kumagai off the ball and calmly shot it past the keeper and into the back of the net.
After a few more dramatic saves, Michelle Betos was forced to be pulled from the game in the 70′. After so taking so many knocks all game, she needed to be helped from the field by trainers as she walked unsteadily from the field. This brought backup keeper Katie Lund onto the pitch for her first professional minutes. Numerous other players were subbed in for Racing, including Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, and Kaleigh Riehl. It wouldn’t be long before these substitutions made an impact.
In the 85′, defender Nealy Martin disrupted a Bayern pass which was collected by midfielder Lauren Milliet. Milliet sent a beautiful cross in that was volleyed in by the newly subbed in Nagasato in an absolutely spectacular goal. And just like that, Racing was ahead 2-1.
Yuki soars. pic.twitter.com/wrZBP2ZkD7
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 22, 2021
Disaster would strike for Racing four minutes into stoppage time as Gemma Bonner scored an own goal to bring things level. Lund made a great attempt at saving it, but couldn’t get a hand on it in time. This would be the last goal of the night and, once again, the game would be decided by a penalty shootout.
It took Michelle Betos over ten years as a professional to face her first penalty shootout in Wednesday’s match versus Chicago. It would take Katie Lund just about half an hour to face hers.
And what a shootout it was. The crowd was so boisterous that the television cameras shook with the force of their stomps and cheers. Both teams remained neck-and-neck all the way through both lineups. Lund was remarkable in goal-saving three and keeping the game alive through all 10 field players on both teams. After the last player in Racing’s lineup went, she asked her teammates whose turn it was. They said it was hers. And so a surprised, but determined Katie Lund stepped up to take her shot.
Lund has some history with taking penalty shots. When still playing as a field player in high school, she took the penalty that won her team the Texas state championship. That was also the last penalty she’d taken until being called upon on Saturday night in Lynn Family Stadium.
Lund converted a strong, solid shot into the upper right corner and celebrated with fist pumps and cheers before taking her place in goal. Her counterpart took a low shot to the left and Lund guessed correctly making her fourth stop of the shootout. And with that save, she also single-handedly clinched the first trophy in Racing Louisville’s history. Throwing her hands up and screaming in celebration, she was swarmed by her ecstatic teammates as purple smoke bellowed up from the supporter’s section.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 22, 2021
Yet Another Storybook Ending
For a team that’s only seven months old, Racing has had some amazing storybook moments. Moments so perfect that they almost seem scripted by Hollywood. Brooke Hendrix’s last-second equalizer against Orlando in Racing’s very first match. Hometown girl Emina Ekic coming off the bench to score the goal that gave Racing their first-ever win. Ebony Salmon coming in and scoring a world-class goal just 45 seconds into her league debut. And now, Katie Lund in her very first professional minutes facing a penalty shootout against Bayern Munich – champions of the German league – and winning Racing’s first trophy.
The common thread through all of these moments is new, mostly unproven players stepping up and going big for their team. Jorian Baucom’s goal also falls into this category. Some of these players were undervalued and others were just unknown. But when the moment came, every one of them made something spectacular happen.
Critics will say Bayern is still in preseason form and not yet fully physically fit. That may be true, but Bayern also put out most of their best players for this match. While they might not be devastated to lose, they clearly did everything they could to win. Being able to say you beat an NWSL team on the rare opportunity you had to play one provides bragging rights for both the team and their league.
Bayern also has years of experience together that should have helped give them a leg up. Most of their roster has been playing together for years longer than Racing has even existed. They have players who have played together longer than a significant portion of Racing’s roster has even been professional soccer players. Racing is the ninth-place team in the NWSL. The fact they were even able to hold on and make it to penalties says a lot about the strength and dedication of this team.
Critics will also say that little can be taken from this set of games – they were friendly matches, it has no impact outside of the tournament, and so forth. All of this is true, too. But even if it doesn’t affect the standings, the impact this trophy will have on the mind and heart of Racing and their fanbase is immeasurable. The ecstatic looks of the faces of players after the win speaks to how meaningful this trophy is to them. From the vibe in the stadium, Racing might as well have just won the league championship.
Ultimately, this trophy means more to Racing than it would have to any other team in the tournament – possibly any other team in the world. Not only were they home, but they had more to prove than Chicago, Bayern, or Paris. Racing has been improving steadily all season but stayed stuck in the bottom of the standings for week with only Kansas City below them. This trophy is something tangible that represents the progress they’d made in just seven shorts months. It’s a sign they can pull off something unexpected at any moment and take on challenges no one thought they could. It’s another reminder that anyone can come off the bench at any time and not just change the game, but become the hero.
There’s something special happening in Louisville. Racing might not be powering into the playoffs or dominating every team they face. There will be plenty of downer moments in their future, too, like the recent loss to Kansas City, that will force the team and fans back to reality. Still, there are clear signs of a strong and powerful foundation being laid. Every player is leaving it all out of the pitch every game and playing with a sense of belief in themselves that rivals champions. Some of what’s gotten them this far is luck, to be sure, but a lot of luck comes down to belief. And from day one, everyone involved in Racing has believed that this was a team that will buck expectations and lift trophies. Period.
And just a handful of months into their inaugural season, that’s exactly what they did.