After weeks of punching above their weight in their inaugural season, Racing Louisville FC were finally delivered a knockout blow by way of a 5-0 drubbing in Cary, North Carolina last Friday.
The Lavender were shut out by perennial NWSL powers North Carolina Courage in front of 3,902 home fans at WakeMed Soccer Park, in the first of a tough slate of matches as the NWSL regular season intensifies.
“Tonight we got a good lesson on ruthlessness from the opposition,” said Louisville coach Christy Holly after the match. “We’ll take that. We’ll take those lessons on board.”
Louisville trailed nearly the entire match. Abby Erceg put North Carolina ahead in the 7th minute, heading home a Carson Pickett corner kick. The Courage controlled most of the chances and dictated the run of play throughout the duration, cementing the result with a flurry of four goals in the final half hour. Louisville was outshot 28-6, and produced only one corner kick to North Carolina’s six. Racing keeper Michelle Betos made five saves in the loss.
“I thought we played pretty well in the first half,” said vice captain Savannah McCaskill. “Obviously we gave up that set piece early but going into the second half. I think we lost our quality … It’s definitely a learning moment. It’s a young team, and we’re going to have to learn from these experiences”
For North Carolina, it was a welcome return of form after a string of draws and losses that included the very welcome return of midfielder Sam Mewis. Mewis, the US international and ESPN’s no. 1 ranked player in the world, returned from a successful spell with English Super League side Manchester City. North Carolina’s most recent competitive win before Friday’s match came in April, grabbing a late winner to earn a 3-2 result against Louisville. With Mewis back in the fold and still boasting a strong roster including Brazilian superstar Debinha, who scored, North Carolina dominated the reverse fixture at home.
“I think the effort is there, but I think as a whole we know Courage is one of the best teams in the league and one of the best teams in the world,” said defender Emily Fox. “Obviously it’s not fun, but I do think that losing, especially this way, is a huge learning opportunity.”
Fox continued her hot run of form as a bright spot at her usual left outside back position for Racing on a tough night. “She brought a real good energy to the team,” said Holly. “She’s a fantastic young player and someone that’s really inquisitive and likes to know how she can become a better player. She gives us a fantastic outlet on the left, but we also give her a bit of freedom to come in the central areas, too.”
The loss marked one of several tough opponents ahead on Racing’s schedule. Louisville will next face Portland Thorns FC, who currently sit third in the table with six out of a possible twelve points. The Thorns, coached by incoming Dutch national team manager Mark Parsons, have one of the league’s most experienced rosters, populated by several national team players across multiple countries. The team recently acquired midfielder Crystal Dunn, and have Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Canada’s Christine Sinclair — the league’s third all-time leading scorer — in the clubhouse as well. Younger players Simone Charley, Rocky Rodriguez and Morgan Weaver have emerged as some of the NWSL’s best players at their defensive, midfield and forward positions, respectively, and US international Adrianna Franch holds the fort in goal.
The talent on the roster alone makes Portland one of the league’s toughest opponents, a fact compounded by the fact that Saturday’s contest comes in the league’s toughest places in which to play in Providence Park. Capacity is still set at 25%, about 6,300, but any advantage Louisville might stand to gain from playing in front of a smaller Portland crowd might be rendered moot; travel issues have prevented the team from arriving in Portland on time — players were still in Houston during Holly’s Friday press conference — and have already canceled a training session.
“Everybody’s on different body clocks all over the place,” said Holly, noting the time change from eastern to pacific time zone. Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:30 local time, and with lack of time to adjust to jet lag and regulate their body clocks, Louisville will be playing at what is usually 10:30 pm. It is also unclear whether the team will be able to train even once before the match, whereas typically the team would schedule two sessions on the road.
“It’s a challenge, but if there’s a group of girls you’d want to have to do this with, it’s this group,” said Holly. “They’ve got their heads down. They’ve not had one complaint.”
While Louisville might be tempted to feel fortunate to simply arrive on time, they have a formidable enough challenge in preparing to neutralize the Thorns’ star-studded roster. Holly is pragmatic in his approach, and knows that Portland’s diamond-shaped midfield boasting the likes of Horan, Dunn and Sinclair will likely control possession, making the key to keep the Thorns in certain areas of the pitch to keep the stars from dictating the run of play.
“When you look at Portland, they’ve got in the starting XI probably, six World Cup winners, five World Cup winners? So they’re going to see more of the ball than us, that’s just the reality,” said Holly. “So our job is to figure out how we can make them have the ball in areas where they don’t want it, in a sense. We think we know where they do want it, but it’s up to us to try and direct them and manipulate them into certain areas where their least important players have more influence.”
Racing do have a new addition to work into the XI, with defender Gemma Bonner finally integrating herself into the Louisville roster this week after finishing the season with her former side Manchester City. Bonner hasn’t played a match since November due to injury, but she is expected to be available for selection on Saturday and will bring valuable experience to a young back line. Also coming from England is FA WSL Young Player of the Season, striker Ebony Salmon, who is currently completing Covid quarantine protocols after arriving stateside. Holly said that the growing squad list and increased roster competition will be a boon for his expansion side.
“Bringing in competition, it allows us to push people in training and bring up the intensity, but it also allows us to have more rotation as well,” said Holly. “People are very familiar with our starting XI, and we’re very physically demanding of them within games. We need to be able to bring in more depth and allow a rotation there, so we’re excited by that.”
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Image courtesy of The Athletic