(Image courtesy of Racing Louisville FC official twitter account)
When players move from overseas and join new clubs in unfamiliar leagues, it’s a common — and most often true — adage in soccer punditry to suggest that the player will need time to adjust to their new surroundings before they can make a real, tangible impact on their club’s on-field performance.
Ebony Salmon needed one minute.
Racing Louisville bagged a statement three points to kick off a busy week for the club, beating the Houston Dash by a score of 1-0 thanks to English international Ebony Salmon’s world-class tally just 74 seconds after being substituted on to make her NWSL debut.
“Watching from the bench, I knew that I could come on and create something, but definitely I was surprised that I came on and scored so quick,” said Salmon after the match. “It’s been a really good few weeks of training with the girls and I’ve just wanted to get myself going and get into a game. I think today getting 20, 25 minutes in the bank and getting a goal is a really good start for me.”
Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly, who signed the 20-year-old striker in May after two breakout seasons with Bristol City in the English FA Women’s Super League confirmed her status as one of the world’s foremost emerging talents, knows that this can just be the start for Salmon.
“I don’t know how many people in America truly knew what Ebony could do and what maybe she’ll go on to do,” said Holly. “We’re very excited about it. We know she’s a project and know she’s got a lot of growth ahead of her, but to be able to turn to the bench and have that type of player come off the bench, and really introduce herself to the NWSL with a footballer’s finish is something we’re excited about.”
Louisville fought off Houston’s strong attack throughout the duration to preserve the club’s fourth ever clean sheet. Louisville allowed Houston eight shots on goal while managing five for themselves, an improvement over their two thrashings at the hands of North Carolina and Portland. The first half was fairly evenly contested, with both teams exchanging scoring chances and working to sustain possession through the midfield. Both teams produced attacks that elicited strong saves from the others’ goalkeeper. Five of Houston’s eight shots on goal were produced in the first half. The Dash appeared to have taken the lead around the 33rd minute, when a well-struck corner kick forced NWSL saves leader Michelle Betos into an impressive fingertip save that led to a rebound. Michelle Sanchez’s resulting header found the back of the net but the goal was disallowed by a close offside call.
Louisville had a strong chance to open their account just before halftime in the 42nd minute, when Emily Fox chipped a ball into the box which knocked its way around several players before landing at the feet of Emina Ekic on the right side. Houston keeper Jane Campbell denied Ekic’s shot clear in front of goal, and the game was tied at nil going into the break.
The deadlock remained until the 71st minute when Holly made his first substitution, inserting Salmon at the no. 9 spot in place of CeCe Kizer. The FA Women’s Young Player of the Year for 2020 received a well-placed through ball from Savannah McCaskill, chipped the ball around several Houston defenders to wriggle herself free, and coolly deposited the winner. The wondergoal appeared at number one on the night’s SportsCenter Top 10 on ESPN, and already has some members of the British press openly wondering whether the young striker should have been given a place on Team Great Britain’s Olympic roster.
“Sav obviously played me the ball and I knew there was going to be defenders near me if not really tight to me,” Salmon recalled of her tally. “I knew I would have to kind of get the ball out of my feet to shoot. I kind of turned, I was halfway facing goal and I saw the space between the two defenders, so I chopped my way into that. The goal was open and I knew I just had to find one of the corners.”
Racing were not content to park the bus and sit on their lead, with Salmon continuing to push the pace on the counterattack with McCaskill, Ekic and, in the very late stages, Cheyna Matthews as Houston poured on the pressure in search of the equalizer. The Lavender had to rely on Betos to make key saves late in the match to keep the lead. In the 87th minute, Houston forward Jazmyne Spencer found Veronica Latsko open in the box, and Betos shut down Latsko’s right-footer with a sprawling kick save to keep her team up. Betos ended the match with seven saves to extend her league lead, kept the clean sheet and walked out with a win.
“There’s a lot of confidence in [Betos],” said Holly. “I’m also just not very keen to drop in and just welcome pressure endlessly because all it takes is one half chance to put the game back level. But at the same time, I know that we have pace higher on the field with some tired legs, the game was opening up and we just focused in on our confidence. Michelle’s got those big saves. We see it week in and week out, we see it day in and day out of practice. So yeah, it allows us not to be too negative when we’re holding on for a one goal lead towards the last minutes of the game.”
Louisville’s next challenge comes quickly, with a Wednesday game against North Carolina and a Saturday clash with Chicago rounding out a 3-game week. A replenished roster after last week’s international break will certainly help Holly determine his rotations; he will have fresh players such as veteran forward Cheyna Matthews that either played negligible minutes Sunday or were kept off the field entirely. But Holly knows he’s facing a significant challenge. He said he and the team will look to Sunday’s win to provide lessons they can take into the demanding week ahead.
“We spoke at the end of the game, we may have won 1-0, but did we get better?” Holly asked of his team. “Did we apply different lessons throughout previous weeks to our performance today? And if the answer’s yes then yes, we’re moving forward. If the answer’s no, we sit down tomorrow and rehash it out again. We asked for the more experienced players to kind of lead these conversations, make sure it’s more of a two-way conversation, one in terms of how we recover, replenish yourself. But two: how do we look at the game, take the lessons and put them into our next performance?”
North Carolina comes into the match with a win of their own, beating OL Reign 1-0 Saturday night. Just three games ago, North Carolina provided Louisville with a 5-0 drubbing. It’s a challenge, but midfielder Gemma Bonner, who went the full 90 minutes in her debut on Sunday, thinks her squad is up for it.
“When you’re playing games in quick succession, then there’s going to be players that are needed to step up at any minute and I think we’ve got a squad now, we’ve got numbers coming back,” said Bonner. “I think in training if we can keep it competitive and healthy then I think every single player here is supporting whoever’s on the pitch. No matter whether they’re on the bench or in the stands. I think that’s a real great quality that we’ve got that we’re always pushing each other. You know that when you step out on the pitch that you’ve got everybody’s support behind you.
We’re going into another difficult game on Wednesday, and again on Saturday, but I think for us to start the week off with the three points and the clean sheet — we’ve got to recover now and prepare for Wednesday, but I think we’re happy to start off with a positive.”