On an emotional night that featured an in-game show of solidarity that overshadowed anything that happened on the pitch, NWSL play resumed for hosts Racing Louisville FC Wednesday night with a 3-1 loss to the North Carolina Courage.
The Courage outshot the hosts by a final margin of 24-5 and dominated possession by nearly 70%-30%. The loss represented Racing’s fourth in five games, and all but certainly eliminated what small hope the ninth-place expansion side harbored for an inaugural playoff appearance. But a collective action by both teams in the first 10 minutes of the match showed just how little any of that mattered.
Six minutes into the match — the number six representing the six years former Courage coach Paul Riley’s alleged systematic abuse of his players were insulated from public scrutiny and allowed to continue on teams in three separate NWSL markets — players and staffers for both teams came together and locked arms. It was a show of resilience, with teams returning to the pitch just days after league play was paused this past weekend as players reacted to the triggering and distressing accusations detailed by Meg Linehan and Katie Strang in The Athletic. It was also a protest against league that players say allowed the abuse to continue unabated.
“We’ve just come to the place with this league that enough is enough,” said Racing captain and goalkeeper Michelle Betos, who sat on the bench in place of NWSL debutant Katie Lund in goal. “The league hasn’t protected us, so we need to protect each other. We need to work together to make sure that this gets better.”
On the pitch, the scoring opened in the 14th minute after Lund made a diving save on North Carolina’s Amy Rodriguez but was unable to stop striker Lynn William’s tap-in on the rebound. The Courage quickly struck again in the 19th, when a giveaway at midfield sprang Rodriguez for a breakaway courtesy of a no-look pass from Jess McDonald that Rodriguez dispatched with a chip.
Racing pulled one back in the 24th minute with vice captain and veteran midfielder Savanah McCaskill’s screamer from outside the box, marking her second goal of the season. In the 30th minute, however, North Carolina restored their two-goal lead after left back Carson Pickett provided service into the Louisville box that was unable to be effectively cleared before being slotted home by Debhina.
The second half played out with no goals between either side as Racing tightened up defensively. Lund ended her debut with five saves, picking up where NWSL saves leader Betos left off.
“I can’t say enough how happy I am for Katie Lund — her first professional start,” said Racing interim coach Mario Sanchez. “ I thought she had a really, really good game, so I’m tremendously happy for her.
“Overall in the second half, we made some tweaks. North Carolina had the ball, but I thought we defended much better.”
The narrative on Wednesday night, and in the days since The Athletic’s reporting was published, was all about the players’ voices finally being heard. As the NWSL Players Association negotiates its first collective bargaining agreement, players have become far more outspoken about the lack of basic protections they’ve had to endure since the league’s founding. In addition to Riley, the NWSL has seen multiple staff members fired for cause — including Racing’s own former head coach Christy Holly.
“It’s so important that everyone sees us as the Players Association and as the entirety of the league of players,” McCaskill said. “We’re all together, we’re all fighting for this league to be better for ourselves, and honestly for the next generation. What people have had to come through, that should never happen again.”
Betos, who has played in the NWSL since its founding as well as two other American leagues before it, said that in the wake of this season’s revelations, the Players Association is demanding to have every club in the league investigated to root out systemic abuse.
“Hopefully things come out clean and that’s great, but there’s a long history,” Betos said. “Since 2013 this league’s been around and things haven’t been right.”
Betos declined to share specifics on the circumstances around Holly’s firing earlier this season, noting that transparency will come in time.
“Right now, from a player perspective, I will tell you that no matter what it looks like to the outside, they’re protecting the players,” Betos said. “It may not make sense right now, but it will soon … we stand behind our club.”
Venus Sports stands in solidarity with the players of the NWSL who have been subject to institutional failures by their leadership and left unprotected from abuse. As we’ve seen in multiple sports and across the gender spectrum, abusers are far too often offered cover and silence, allowing them to continue to inflict harm. The players are in solidarity against these abusers, but it must not be incumbent on the victims of a toxic system to single-handedly advocate for their basic human dignity — those in power must act proactively in the interest of their safety.
Venus Sports exists at the service of these athletes and their stories, not any institution. We will be here to document and amplify their stories in hopes that true change is achieved.
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Photo Credit: Racing Louisville FC Twitter