Racing Louisville FC: First Quarter Season Review – Louisville Basketball

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The State of Louisville
Photo Courtesy of Connor Cunningham
This year there are 26 league matches, so I will follow a 7-6-6-7 format to divide the season into quarters.
Since the league is now comprised of 14 teams instead of 12, the playoff positions have expanded from 6 to 8 meaning that the majority of the teams will make the playoffs this season. Honestly, “making the playoffs” under these conditions constitutes a pretty low bar in my opinion. However, after 3 straight 9th place finishes Racing would definitely consider getting a playoff spot a success.
I went back and read my first quarter piece from last season where I was highly critical of the team’s performance. I was really angry when I wrote that piece, but I still think it was all true. This season with a first-year head coach and a squad that is still trying to gel, I think a more measured approach is warranted. Additionally, the margin of error for making the playoffs this season means that you can practice a little patience at the beginning of the season (although the runway for that is getting shorter).
However, results don’t lie. Let me give you the point totals after 7 matches for the three previous seasons: 2021: 10 points, 2022: 8 points, 2023: 7 points. This season Racing sit on 8 points, which as of writing this is good enough for 8th place, but the 2 clubs directly below them in the table each have a game in hand.
In my opinion I do think Racing are marginally better as a club, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough for the playoffs. Let’s take a look how Racing got here.
Best Bit: Elexa Bahr scores on her debut.
Worst Bit: A Pikkujämsä own goal gives Orlando a way back from a 2-0 deficit.
Takeaway: Racing are unfortunate not to come away with 3 points, but they have a history of squandering leads so maybe it isn’t really “fortune”.
Best Bit: Reilyn Turner gets off 8 shots in the first half.
Worst Bit: None of them find the back of the net.
Takeaway: Racing will take a point on the road against Houston with Jane Campbell in as excellent from as she was on the night.
Best Bit: Racing jump out to an early lead on a Kanu brace in under six minutes.
Worst Bit: Elli Pikkujämsä goes off with a season ending injury while Racing spends the rest of the match treating the ball like it is a hot potato covered in horse manure.
Takeaway: It’s an all too familiar refrain (“AND EVERY ONE WAS AN EN-ER-REE”) with Racing giving up an early lead.
Best Bit: Racing put in a very good second half and would have won if offside wasn’t a thing.
Worst Bit: The first half of the match was snoozefest.
Takeaway: Plenty of good signs point to better results on the horizon.
Best Bit: It’s a tough call, but Emma Sears first goal in the pick of the litter.
Worst Bit: Racing shut off for a brief moment in first half stoppage time and allow an equalizer.
Takeaway: Racing’s biggest ever win is witnessed by its biggest ever home crowd.
Best Bit: Emma Sears blows by a defender and sets up Reilyn Turner’s stoppage-time goal to surely win it for Racing.
Worst Bit: A mere two minutes later, Lund can’t catch the cross and Lavelle equalizes.
Takeaway: A rather dull match is turned into a very exciting one during the 12 minutes of second half stoppage time.
Best Bit: Abby Erceg’s last-ditch block takes enough sting out of Banda’s shot for Lund to save it and keep the match 1-0.
Worst Bit: Racing seems disinterested in “running through a brick wall” to try to find the equalizer.
Takeaway: Racing’s undefeated streak ends, but it is probably more of a credit to the quality of the Orlando Pride than a drop in performance levels.
My main complaint at this point last season was that Racing wasn’t good enough to stubbornly stick to playing a certain way and get results. This season, Racing definitely seems more defensively disciplined at this stage of the season. They also have more attacking threat. When healthy their midfield is also a strength. So why hasn’t all of this resulted in more points?
Honestly, I think it is still going to take some time for everything to gel. Historically my biggest complaint is that the club just doesn’t score enough from sustained possession. Whether it is 100% due to setting up this way or merely the nature of the league, Racing’s biggest success when it comes to getting goals is on the counter. Seven out of the ten goals that Racing have scored on the season are either directly from transition or just moments after.
If they don’t score within 10 seconds of getting possession, they tend to not be great at holding possession and recycling the ball for another chance at scoring. This method seems kind of intentional. Racing gets pinned back in their own half so often that when they actually do get possession in the attacking third, they seem rushed or lacking in enough precision passing to break down an opponent. If you look at the league possession statistics, they really aren’t indicative of performance, so I don’t think it is a lack of possession that is Racing’s issue. I think the issue is that Racing is not consistently in a situation to dictate play. In two of their matches, they were in a lead so early that there was much more onus on their opponents to try to claw their way back into a match.
In the opening match of the season Orlando was probably fortunate to get the equalizer with 10 players because Racing had grabbed back control of the match after the red card. Against Portland, Racing faced one-way traffic from pretty much the entire final 45 minutes. In the 0-0 draws, Racing played a good half in each of the matches, but San Diego completely controlled the first half in that match and Houston’s only other clean sheet is against bottom-of-the-league Royals. Speaking of the Royals, Racing did manage to dictate that match for large sections, but the Royals aren’t a very good team. In New Jersey, Gotham played exactly the way they wanted to play. Ditto for Orlando.
Why is dictating play so important?
Just about every time I hear Bev Yanez answer questions, she tends to focus on what her team is doing versus worrying about or discussing the opponent. I don’t think this is atypical for a coach, but Bev has put such an emphasis on playing “the right way” (I disagree that there is one) that you would expect Racing to have a clearer identity. She always talks about the process and after just about every match she has seemed pleased, or at least not overly concerned about how the team is progressing. I do think the team is marginally better. I am a big believer in small, steady improvement. However, that doesn’t give you much grace for moderate to heavy setbacks. Based on nothing but my gut, experience and observations of the last few years I would say that while losing their first match of the season in Orlando was a minor blow, it wasn’t a disaster. I think Bev has set up this team to do just that: avoid disasters. There has been all kinds of talk about players “running through a brick wall” for Bev. That’s a great soundbite, and I do think Bev is a terrific motivator. However, on the pitch Racing seems more cautious at times than brave. Bev definitely encourages the players to be brave and they have the freedom to do it. I just haven’t seen it consistently in attack. Racing is plenty brave on defense. I would suggest that a duality of bravery on defense and ruthlessness in attack is the way to go, but ruthlessness requires precision.
If you are to be ruthless in attack, you need a ruthless number 9. Elexa Bahr started the season about as ruthless as you can, and then has disappeared for huge sections of matches. Uchenna Kanu has a great return of 4 goals in 7 matches, but obviously is more suited to the complimentary role of winger versus the tip of the arrow attacker needed for a center forward. Turner and Sears have both been brilliant in stretches but will both have rookie moments. I am looking forward to seeing what Kirsten Wright can do when she returns to full health. I’m not saying she is the definite answer to Racing’s long search for a number 9 that can produce and stay fit, but I think she has the best potential on the roster for filling that role this season.
Midfield consistency is also missing. DeMelo and Howell have both missed multiple matches and if it weren’t for new addition Taylor Flint, Racing would really be hurting in midfield. Racing’s midfield of DeMelo/Borges/Howell last season was great at times, but the World Cup disruption and Howell’s injury problems meant that a midfield that has a promising start, wasn’t together much at the business end of the season. Borges has now seemingly moved to a wing position, so when they are all healthy, the midfield will now surely be DeMelo/Howell/Flint. It took me some time to warm to Flint. For all of her defensive stat padding, I expected her touch and handle to be better. She isn’t a traditional holding midfielder, so there will be some trade-offs. After I learned how to watch her, I have much more appreciation for the way she plays. If not for Kanu giving her a run for her money, she would be the clear-cut “player of the season” leader at this point. That being said, her strengths are more in disrupting play versus controlling or calming it. Sometimes I feel like Racing could do with a level-headed midfielder on the pitch who will just take the sting out of the game when it needs it. I like DiGrande in this role. If Racing are to stick with the DeMelo/Howell/Flint midfield, just be aware that it consists of two fiery players and a disruptor. That might work, and it definitely won’t be boring.
The defensive depth took a hit when Elli Pikkujämsä had her season ending injury. However, the roster was better prepared this season with more depth in defensive/holding midfield and at defender. Racing could use one more center back beyond Ellie Jean, but Arin Wright has stepped in nicely. This does mean that both outer backs Milliet and Pickett have played 629 and 630 minutes respectively. Wright surely would have been given minutes there, but now that luxury is gone. The defending really hasn’t been an issue this season. I wouldn’t put any of the seven goals that Racing’s opponents have scored down to “poor defending”. Lund made questionable judgement calls on the first Portland goal and the Gotham equalizer. The goals from the opening match against Orlando were down to an unfortunate touch by Pikkujämsä and an unusual long ball that just found its way to the right player. Utah’s goal was really the result of Kanu not tracking back quickly enough, but it still took a fine finish. The second Portland goal and the Orlando goal in the rematch were just good attacks from those teams. Collectively the team has defended well, they’ve just done too much of it. If Racing could just hold the ball in their opponent’s half a little more, especially with a lead, I think the defense is plenty good enough.
If I am being completely honest with you, I found this off-season’s über-positivity a little too rich for my blood. I think the club made all of the right moves, but I didn’t see any other them as earth-shattering. I would apply that to Yanez’s hire too. I think she was the right hire. I also think she was the safe hire. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Bev has done well in her first set of matches. I definitely feel like this team is capable of their best ever finish and making the playoffs this year. Her big test comes now following a loss. Can she avoid a skid like the ones that doomed her predecessor? Racing is historically prone to long stretches of mediocre play and poor results. I think Bev will prove to be the coach that helps the team avoid this. Above all, I think the players trust her which goes a long way. Here are my first quarter positives:
I think Bev should get a significant amount of credit for all of the things I listed above. It is unfair to act like she is some kind of miracle worker. For all of the club’s narrative over the last few seasons about being “close”, they lacked something in the head-coaching department. Having such a committed coach like Bev will do wonders, it will just take some time. The coaching staff also feels like “her staff” (only Sergio Gonzalez predates her now). Previously, the staffs felt a little patchwork. In the second quarter, here is what needs to happen in my opinion to stay on track:
Michael is the editor and main contributor for a website dedicated exclusively to coverage of Racing Louisville FC. He is also an Arsenal fan, but try not to hold that against him. U of L Class of 1997
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