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Travel and injuries catch up to Racing Louisville in Challenge Cup Final defeat

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After a fairytale week that saw them beat both the Portland Thorns and OL Reign for the first time ever, Racing Louisville fell 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage in the Challenge Cup Final on Saturday after exhaustion and injuries finally caught up with them.

Ultimately, the Courage was simply the better team throughout the match. Racing had a few moments — particularly at the end of the first half — where they could have gotten on the board, but, on the whole, they didn’t threaten their opponents much with only one out of 10 shots on goal. North Carolina, meanwhile, had 11 shots on goal that required Racing keeper Katie Lund to make nine big saves to keep the scoreline from getting out of hand.

This result ultimately should not be too much of a surprise — and that’s not a dig on Racing by any means. The odds were just very stacked against them. First, they have some key players out injured, like Carson Pickett and Jaelin Howell. Although Elli Pikkujämsä has been performing quite well in the No. 6 position in lieu of Howell, this match was really missing Howell’s ability to win balls and distribute out of the midfield. Likewise, Rebecca Holloway has been a solid substitute for Pickett but lacks Pickett’s speed and ability to push the ball forward. The fact Holloway went down herself in the 33rd minute just added insult to injury for Racing. Substitute Maddie Pokorny did well in her first foray into playing as a defender, but that also robbed Racing’s ability to use her as an offensive sub later in the match as has become typical.

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Second, Racing has been firing on all cylinders for the past week so by the time they reached the final, it was clear they were left running on fumes. Head coach Kim Björkegren acknowledged that travel had been taxing on the team after the game and it’s understandable why. They beat the Portland Thorns for the first time last Saturday, traveled across the country to Seattle to beat OL Reign for the first time in the Challenge Cup semifinal, only to turn around and fly all the way back across the country to play the Courage three days later. That’s a Louisville to Seattle to North Carolina trip in mere days. “We had like a half-training, couldn’t do anything to prepare us on the pitch for it… I wish we had a couple of trainings to prepare for a big final in a big league like this,” said Björkegren.

To perform at this high level in such a short turnaround is an incredibly big ask for any team, so the fact they slayed two dragons is impressive enough. Trying to do it a third time on short rest ultimately proved to be too much for Louisville.

What’s more, the Courage is a personal bogeyman for Racing Louisville having handed them their most humiliating defeats in Racing’s short three-year existence. In their previous meetings across all competitions, the Courage has scored a minimum of three goals on Racing five out of eight times. So for an already tired team to take on their worst rival — not to mention weather a two-hour lightning delay that came in the 11th minute — and only give up two goals isn’t the worst result in the world.

Does this loss sting? Of course, but Björkegren said there’s value in the experience of losing a big game. If they’re going to do better next time, they need to remember this sting so it can motivate them to a bigger result at a later date.

Overall, Racing should be proud of the impressive run they had this Challenge Cup. Across the past two years, they only won a single Challenge Cup match. This year, they won four in the group stage alone in addition to their semifinal against OL Reign which was also their first-ever knockout round game in any league-sanctioned tournament. That’s some unquestionably solid progress for a young team that’s still trying to establish a winning mentality. They never gave up fighting and, in a less intense week, maybe they’d be able to pull in a better result. Either way, making it to their first final is a tangible sign of growth they can continue to build from.

Now Racing will head back to Louisville to continue their bid to make the regular-season playoffs for the first time in team history when they take on the Houston Dash on Friday. They sit in seventh place, just on the cusp of making it, only one spot and two points away from a playoff berth. With some rest and some time to recuperate, they still have the chance to push and make more team history before the season ends.

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