Louisville Downs Washington Spirit for First Franchise Win
Racing Louisville FC opened their account for the 2021 season with their first franchise win as well as their first goals in regular season play, rebounding from a scoreless draw with a 2-0 win over Washington Spirit.
Louisville native and Racing’s fifth overall draft pick Emina Ekic came off the bench and scored Louisville’s first regular season goal in the 76th minute.
“It was definitely awesome,” said Ekic about scoring for Louisville in the win. “We definitely had to trust the process. It is hard to score goals in the League. It meant a lot to me to score it in front of our fans with the support of the team.”
Louisville coach Christy Holly acknowledged what the moment meant for his young expansion side.
“Because we are so young, you can feel tentative about feeling good and believing what you can do,” said Holly “You sometimes wait for something good to happen in order to appreciate what they can do. It definitely brought a belief to us.”
Washington immediately started on the front foot when Ashley Sanchez, having settled into a true no. 10 position in midfield after last week’s experiment in the front three, slotted a pass to the talented rookie forward Trinity Rodman in the first minute. Rodman turned on the jets with a darting run and eased past Louisville’s backline, forcing Michelle Betos into a save and winning the Spirit an early corner.
Louisville shook off the scare and looked to press on the counter, and appeared to have had a breakthrough in the sixth minute, when McClure looked to have received a pass with nothing but green grass in front of her. The attack was stopped though when the line judge’s offside flag was raised. Another Louisville attack a minute later was also ruled offside, but Racing made it clear that the potential was there to burn Washington on the counter. In the eighth minute, Louisville was able to draw a free kick in the Spirit third after Kelley O’Hara launched into an ill-advised tackle to stop a rush. McCaskill’s lofting cross to the back post found no receiver and skipped out of play to end the chance.
The pace was frenetic in the early stages, with Louisville preceding to turn several defensive presses into chances at the other end. Nagasato was all over the pitch for the home side, contributing to play on both the defensive and offensive sides, putting the pressure on Washington, who spent much of the first twenty minutes scrambling for space in possession. Louisville were bold and incisive with their tackling early on, dispossessing Washington at several opportunities and combining their speed with players like McCaskill’s propensity for long balls to turn the play in the other direction.
With Louisville’s defense operating on all cylinders and brimming with confidence after playing over 230 minutes without conceding a goal, it was clear that while Washington was controlling much of the match and creating several chances, only a flash of brilliant build-up or display of individual brilliance from Washington would lead to a breakthrough. That moment almost came in the 30th minute, when Kumi Yokoyama found Tegan McGrady, who left the ball for Ashley Sanchez. Sanchez’s right-footed shot went right into the gloves of Betos. Washington continued to apply pressure in search of a goal. Saori Takarada found herself wide open in the center of the box and smashed an attempt into Betos, who made a key kick save.
The second half opened with less abandon shown by both teams than in the first half, but Hatch’s impact was felt in the 57th minute, when she found herself on the end of a long ball and produced a header that forced Betos into full-extension to make the save. In the 59th, the Spirit thought they had a tie-breaker when Yokoyama flicked on a corner kick into the netting, but the flag was up for offsides and the goal was disallowed.
Momentum shifted back and forth between the two teams throughout the second half, with both managers making tactical changes and substitutions in an effort to solve the other side. The breakthrough finally arrived in the 76th minute, when McCaskill saucered a through ball to substitute Ekic, who employed a clever touch with her left foot and curled a shot past Bledsoe, marking Louisville’s first regular season goal and putting Racing into the lead.
The Spirit, with only 25 minutes left in regular time, had to put 10 players up in search of an equalizer. Washington ended the match with a whopping 29 shots, 10 of which found their target, and possessed the ball 60% of the time. While Washington controlled the run of play, Louisville did well to absorb the pressure and just as they did in the first half, looked to pounce on the counter.
After a Spirit giveaway in the 81st minute, the counter was on for Louisville with a 3-on-1 opportunity, and this time Ekic played provider, slicing the ball to an open CeCe Kizer who employed a deft touch and tucked the ball into the netting for the 2-0 lead.
Betos was named Player of the Match after another standout performance. Her 10 saves launched Betos to the top of the NWSL in saves with 13. Betos was ecstatic to earn her first win with Louisville.
“It’s early on in the season, but in game two to get a win against Washington and a win at home…there are no words,” said Betos. “I was excited, but again it’s moment to moment. It’s how do we stay in this game and how do we keep them in this game because we knew Washington was so dangerous.”
The match kicked off in front of 6,011 fans and one particularly important guest: US Women’s National Team coach Vlatko Andonovski, who was in town to tour Racing’s new training facility as well as scout players. Andonovski was more than impressed with the training facility, which is in progress and will be shared by Racing and their USL counterparts Louisville City FC.
“It’s absolutely amazing. I got excited just looking at it, I can only imagine how the players are going to feel when they’re walking into it. For someone who’s been in this league since day one, to see something like this is very fulfilling. It’s very exciting to see how this league has grown.”
Though Andonovski walked away impressed by his tour, he was there first and foremost to watch a soccer match. He was there not only to observe his players already part of the USWNT player pool, but also to get a better feel for players who might be ready for a callup. On the Racing side, midfielder Savannah McCaskill, number one draft pick Emily Fox and striker CeCe Kizer were shouted out as players who have impressed the national team boss. Those players gave Andonovski plenty to think about, with each logging in solid minutes and Kizer netting a goal. Betos said she hoped her side impressed Andonovski, while acknowledging the constant room for improvement in their performance.
“He is one of my favorite coaches I have ever played for and the first thing he said was, ‘Wow, I really like watching your team play. You can tell they’re going to work. They’re committed to what you guys are doing. They’re not going to stop fighting,’ said Betos. “That’s what I want him to say. I think we have a lot of work to do. We want to be better than we were today. We have a trajectory, but at the end of the day if we’re working, fighting and defending together then that’s something to be proud of.”
Louisville Travel to Face North Carolina
In a reversal of the club’s Challenge Cup fortunes, the win over Washington puts Louisville top of the league table ahead of their week three game against perennial league powers North Carolina Courage. Holly, never one to rest on his laurels, laughed off the team’s positioning so early in the season.
“It’s nice to be up there, but our focus isn’t on the table right now,” said Holly. “Our focus is on getting better. If they gave out medals in week one or week two then great, we’d have a medal. But we’re more focused on what this year looks like, what next year looks like, and making this a long-term, sustainable team that can be impactful over the coming years rather than on the short term.”
What this week looks like for Racing is a Friday fixture against a strong North Carolina side that bested Louisville 3-2 when the two met in the Challenge Cup. North Carolina earned the win after an 84th minute goal stole a point from the hosts in their third competitive match. Holly knows that his squad is in for a challenge.
“It’s gonna be a very difficult game and if we want to get something from that game, we need to put in our best performance,” said Holly. “So it’s exciting, it’s a challenge, it’s on the road. It’s different, but nothing’s changed for what we will be doing, we’re still focused on getting better.”
Though winning is obviously the goal of any professional sports team and last week’s win admittedly came as a relief to Holly and his players, Holly is quick to point out he wasn’t completely satisfied with his team’s performance. He repeated a familiar theme in his press appearances with his new expansion team, saying that he was not obsessed with wins or results — especially at this stage of the season. His focus is on putting in strong, complete performances.
“One of the things we really pride ourselves on is making sure that we’re in the game, throughout,” said Holly. “Some games will go our way, some won’t go our way but it’s making sure that we’re always trying to put ourselves in situations where we can compete till the very end.”
Louisville has their work cut out for them in the coming weeks, with matches against reigning Challenge Cup winners Portland Thorns FC and last summer’s Challenge Cup winners Houston Dash following the North Carolina clash. Holly knows that’s par for the course in the hyper-competitive ten-team NWSL.
“This is the NWSL, this is the reason it’s the best league in the world,” said Holly. “You don’t get to take a day off. I think the reality is that Racing Louisville is probably targeted as the team that you might get an off weekend with and you might be able to have a subpar performance, and get some points from it. Our job is to make sure that everybody in this league is fighting to the very end.”
Racing Louisville FC’s match against North Carolina Courage kicks off at 7pm ET on Friday. The match airs globally on streaming platform Twitch.
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Photo Credit: EM Dash Photos