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Lauletta: Racing already bleeding points, conceding results

Louisville forward Uchenna Kanu dribbles past a defender.
Photo Copyright Jaime Valdez for USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks into the National Women’s Soccer League season and a FIFA break is upon us. As teams take the time for a few days off and some self-reflection, the early theme to the season seems to be how many teams have either dropped points from favorable positions or failed to collect maximum points from favorable situations.

One team squarely in the crosshairs is Racing Louisville. First-year head coach Bev Yanez has yet to lose, but her side has yet to win, each match more astonishing than the other. Twice in three matches, Racing have led 2-0 in the first half and 2-1 with less than five minutes to play (plus extra time). In the third, they dominated the Dash but settled for 0-0 after being thwarted in every which way from Jane Campbell’s face to Sarah Puntigam’s remarkable, back-heel goal line clearance.

“Obviously we wanted to close this match out,” Yanez said Saturday night after rattling off some positives including Louisville’s first goal and point at Providence Park after shutout losses each of the last three seasons. “We will continue to find ways to ensure that we close games. We wanted to walk away with three points of course, and we will continue to work on that.”

Racing jumped in front early, stunning the Portland crowd through Uchenna Kanu’s brace before six minutes were up. The first goal was in transition on a play that started with Kanu winning the ball in midfield and ended when she picked up a deflected ball and beat Kelli Hubly and then Shelby Hogan. On the second, Kanu outjumped two Thorns defenders who had her flanked ahead of a cross to the top of the six. A 2-0 lead with 84+ minutes to play is hardly a safe haven in soccer, but there comes a point in a team’s development when learning how to win enters the DNA. This was not part of Racing’s DNA the last two seasons under Kim Bjorkegren, and at least through three matches, it has not been supplied by Yanez.

Yanez said her halftime message was that mentality would be a big part of securing the three points. But the Thorns were the aggressors out of the break and at 52 minutes, Morgan Weaver took advantage of chaos in the penalty area to cut the lead in half. Weaver got on the ball shortly after a corner kick that was initially headed out by Elli Pikkujamsa.

Racing then got away with allowing Hina Sugita in the box without pressure but were unable to clear her errant pass despite multiple chances including one from keeper Katie Lund. The Thorns won the corner after more failed clearances led to Lund having to dive to knock away a Meghan Klingenberg cross that missed its mark but nearly sneaked in the far corner.

On the ION broadcast, Jill Loyden remarked: “You felt that pressure change right from the whistle of the second half.”

The rest of the game played out with the Thorns pushing and Louisville defending, or doing exactly what their coach told them not to in her halftime message. In the 71st minute, they lost Pikkujamsa to an injury that required her left leg to be stabilized and for all of her to be ushered off the pitch on a stretcher. By the inevitably large batch of stoppage time, Racing were doing everything wrong. Clearances were rushed and often into empty space. There was little effort to possess or hold up play to kill clock. It was as if they were begging the Thorns to come with chance after chance. They finally complied 9 minutes into stoppage time when Sam Coffey slithered away from two defenders, beat Jaelin Howell with a dribble and then hammered a shot that beat Lund.

“Obviously very, very, very disappointing,” center back Abby Erceg said, offering sentiments her coach did not appear ready to. “We don’t know how to win. I think that’s becoming quite obvious at the moment.”

“We were doing everything we needed to do in order to win,” Erceg said of the 1st half. “We had got the two goals and at this level you should be able to shut that out.”

She added that they did not want to defend for 45-50 minutes after halftime but, “That’s kind of what we ended up doing. Disappointing that we didn’t take that and run away with the win.”

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Around the league

Pride 1, Red Stars 1

The Pride, like Louisville, have three straight draws to open the season. After rallying in their first two they could not hold a 1-0 lead in this one, falling victim to Mallory Swanson’s first goal of the season. A Taylor Malham own goal from a Pride set piece gave the home side a first-half lead.

Swanson told NWSL+ after the match she has been struggling in training to get her final edge. She was asked postgame if that was more about rust or trying to regain confidence after her injury.

“Both,” she said. “I don’t know really how to explain it but what I’ve learned the past three games is (that) it takes time and I needed to give myself a little more grace with where I was at. And honestly take a deep breath and shoot the ball.”

Wave 1, Reign 0

It took 98 minutes but the Wave found a goal that ended their Reign FC hoodoo. Thanks to the Challenge Cup and a playoff meeting last fall the teams had met nine times during the Wave’s first two seasons. The Reign were 7-0-2. The Wave were on the front foot more of the match but when Alex Morgan’s apparent winner was negated because the ball was out before the decisive cross came in, it looked like perhaps the streak would continue. The look on Wave coach Casey Stoney’s face at the final whistle seemed to show it was weighing on her side.

The Reign played without Jess Fishlock (personal) and Quinn (concussion) in midfield, something coach Laura Harvey said was “tough.”

Current 4, Angel City 2

The Current roared to a third straight win to open the season and are alone atop the table. Vanessa DiBernardo continued her torrid start with an early goal and an assist and Malawian sensation Temwa Chawinga bagged her first NWSL goal. The win was not without stress though. It looked like a 2-0 and 3-1 lead had been erased but an Angel City equalizer was taken off the board for offside following a lengthy VAR check. The Current iced it soon after.

Angel City have now lost two times in three games and are on one point. When head coach Becki Tweed took over as interim last season, Angel City finished 6-1-4 to storm into the playoffs. They have already lost double that in 2024. Additionally, highly-touted keeper Angelina Anderson had a horrid outing in Kansas City. Her mistakes led directly to three of the four Current goals.

Courage 1, Gotham 0

Brianna Pinto scored near halftime to lift the Courage to the win on a night when possession numbers were nearly split down the middle. Intentionally or not, Ashley Sanchez headed down a cross into Pinto’s path for the finish. Gotham’s best chance can earlier in the half when Yazmeen Ryan slammed one off the crossbar.

“We got a good goal. And then we had to grind,” Courage coach Sean Nahas said. “I’ve been challenging the group all week in terms of learning from last week (2-1 loss in Utah), in terms of fighting and competing. And those last 10 minutes they put us under an immense amount of pressure and we competed and found a way.”

Thorns 2, Louisville 2

Mostly covered above but let’s not let the Thorns off the hook for an 0-2-1 start. They did avoid the first four-match losing streak in club history but the slow start off of two straight losses is cause for concern. On the flip side, a sharper game from Sophia Smith in the attacking third may have translated into the full three points.

Bay 2, Dash 3

Maybe the most interesting game of the season so far saw the Dash find a late winner after Bay appeared to have saved a point with a stoppage-time equalizer. In front of a sold-out, 18,000 at PayPal Park for their first-ever home match, Bay controlled large portions of the match and showed off some of their attacking chops. Deyna Castellanos opened with a sublime shot that kicked off the upper 90. Racheal Kundananji made her NWSL debut and tied it with a fantastic individual effort, then draped herself in a Zambia flag to celebrate.

The Dash were the story though. It almost seemed like they figured things out as the match developed. An insistence on playing the 3-5-2 possession system has led to some difficult moments getting countered, and there were more against Bay. But there were also some beautiful moments of the system working. It often created space for Maria Sanchez on the left, an area utilized in the buildup to the first goal. It was a fascinating match in that both teams did exactly what they wanted to at times and both teams could have walked away with three points.

Spirit 2, Royals 1

The Spirit dominated the opening half hour and were paid off with two goals. The first was an Andi Sullivan penalty following a VAR-checked tackle by Olivia Griffitts—in her first NWSL appearance—on fellow rookie Croix Bethune. The second was a Trinity Rodman cross to Ouleymata Sarr.

The Royals though, did not give up and flipped the script in the second half. Ally Sentnor scored her second goal in as many games, from nearly the identical spot near the top of the 18. The Royals kept the pressure on and created several chances but could not find an equalizer and the Spirit regained control late.

Talking points

  • Midge Purce announced this week that she tore the ACL in her left knee during Gotham’s Week 2 win at Portland. The resulting surgery and impending recovery means the MVP of the 2023 NWSL Championship will miss the remainder of the season.

    I’ll let my colleague Jenna Tonelli take it from here.
  • This is mostly an NWSL space, but U.S. and Paris Saint-Germanin teenager Korbin Albert was in the news last week for all the wrong reasons. Notably, her TikTok feed was found to include some shockingly anti-LGBT content. She was dragged for days and softly called out by Megan Rapinoe (whose number she has been wearing for the U.S.) before posting a half-hearted apology.

    Time will tell how this situation plays out for club and country. There is no rule mandating teammates to share views, but once you post them on the socials they often become part of the narrative, and those teammates can be alienated.

    More importantly though – isn’t it long past time for views like these to go away?
  • NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said this weekend at the Bay FC match that “upwards of a dozen” potential expansion groups are under Non-Disclosure Agreements as they are vetted and trying to win the league over to enter with Boston in 2026. A soft target of the fourth quarter of 2024 was given for an announcement. Still not sure why the NDAs as there are multiple good reasons for allowing the names to be public. Reasons range from generating buzz to allowing media and fans to help unofficially assist with due diligence.

Free kicks

  • Sam Staab now shares the NWSL record for consecutive appearances with 93. If she plays for the Red Stars on April 13 against Angel City, she will break the mark and leave Amber Brooks in 2nd. Staab has started all 93 matches.
  • Katie Lind’s excused absences have been on account of maternity leave. Lind and her husband are expecting their first child this summer.
  • Jenna Bike is an early candidate for Most Improved Player in NWSL this season (caps to mimic a new award. NWSL, are you listening?). Bike assisted on Swanson’s goal for the Red Stars over the weekend and has been active in the team’s attack whenever she has been on this season. “I told her,” Swanson said of Bike, “whatever you did this offseason, keep doing it.”
  • Laura Harvey mentioned postgame that the Reign have never won a match with Alexandra Billeter as the center ref. We looked it up, and Friday’s loss to the Wave dropped the Reign to 0-7-1 in regular season matches with Billeter in the center.
  • Bay FC have scored the first goal in all three games but are 1-2-0. Both losses have been in stoppage time.
  • There is growing discontent around the league with the length of VAR reviews and in turn, the enormous amount of stoppage time. Friday night in Orlando it took 7 minutes to determine Natalia Kuikka did not commit a red-card offense for what could have been a DOGSO foul. “I don’t want to criticize VAR,” Red Stars coach Lorne Donaldson said. “If it takes that long to make a damn decision, then there’s no decision. So let’s get on with the game.”

    It happened again in Washington when the Royals’ Dana Foederer was ultimately shown a yellow card for a studs-up tackle on Hal Hershfelt. This accounted for most of the 13 minutes (!) of 1st half stoppage time. The commentary from NWSL+ analyst Jordan Angeli during the review was spot on.
  • The picture of Carson Pickett “fist” bumping then 21-month-old Joseph Tidd is my favorite NWSL picture of all time. Someone at ION seems to agree because Saturday’s pregame show included a sensational segment with Tidd brought in to surprise Pickett, who had been expecting a standard interview. The segment was touching, unobtrusive, and not overproduced. Far and away the best work from ION so far.

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