NWSL 2023: Racing Louisville FC seeks maiden playoff berth

Entering its third season, Racing Louisville hopes to put the pieces together and earn its first playoff appearance.

Its inaugural 2021 season ended with a second-to-last finish after a beginning marked by the firing of its first coach, Christy Holly, for cause.

Swede Kim Björkegren took the helm for the 2022 season and Racing Louisville finished 9th again, albeit in a 12-team league.

Joining Björkegren on the bench in 2023 is Beverly Goebel Yanez as the team’s new lead assistant coach. The former player with the OL Reign, as well as in Australia and Japan, spent the last two years serving as an assistant coach for Gotham FC.

Last year's 5-9-8 record (23 points) came while only scoring 23 goals and conceding 35, the third-most in the league. But the NWSL’s youngest team finished the season strong, winning three of its last four games.

Goalkeeper Katie Lund stood out all season, making an NWSL season record 112 saves to prevent her team from conceding even more goals. On the other end of the field, Danish forward Nadia Nadim led the team with six goals in 11 games, while central midfielder Savannah DeMelo (photo) and defensive midfielder Jaelin Howell started every game of their rookie seasons. Howell, Lund, DeMelo, and midfielder Lauren Millet received contract extensions.

Racing declined Gemma Bonner’s 2023 option, allowing the veteran English defender to return to her homeland, signing with her former club Liverpool. 

In need of defensive leadership and experience, the club made a blockbuster transaction, acquiring central defender Abby Erceg and left back Carson Pickett from the North Carolina Courage in exchange for outside back and U.S. World Cup hopeful Emily Fox.

Erceg, the former New Zealand captain, won three regular-season NWSL Shields and three championships with the Western New York Flash and Courage, and Pickett was named to the NWSL Best XI in both 2021 and 2022.

Further bolstering the back end of the field is 23-year-old Elli Pikkujämsä. The Finnish central defender started playing professional soccer at the age of 15 and has already made 20 international appearances. After playing for Swedish club KIF Örebro the past three seasons, Pikkujämsä is coming to the NWSL on a two-year contract with a mutual option for a third year.

Racing hopes to strengthen its midfield with 22-year-old Brazilian Ary Borges, who totaled 18 goals in 32 appearances in 2022 while leading Palmeiras to Campeonato Paulista and Copa Libertadores titles and the regular-season shield in the Brasileiro Serie A. For Brazil, her four goals include the semifinal winner in the 2022 Copa America.

Before the 2023 NWSL Draft, the club traded the fourth overall pick to Gotham FC in exchange for 26-year-old winger and outside back Paige Monaghan, $150,000 in allocation money and a 2023 international roster slot. Monaghan, who scored three goals in 22 games last year, agreed to a three-year extension. The versatile player expects to improve Racing’s ability out wide as she vies for playing time at right back or winger.

Racing used allocation money to acquire via transfer 25-year-old Nigerian forward Uchenna Kanu, who signed a two-year contract with a third-year option. Kanu is an exciting young talent fresh off a 2022 season in which she scored 23 goals in 38 games, helping Tigres win the Liga MX Femenil’s Torneo Apertura trophy. She also has scored 10 goals in 12 games for her country, scoring in a friendly against the USA in September.

Kanu is not the only prolific African striker at Louisville. Well-traveled South African forward Thembi Kgatlana looks to make her club debut this year after transferring from Atletico Madrid last July.

Racing played a scoreless scrimmage against the Washington Spirit in Florida, and beat the Chicago Red Stars 3-2 in a preseason game in Indianapolis. It opened play at the Portland preseason tournament with a 1-0 loss to the Thorns. At this point, the team is healthy except for Emina Ekic, who will miss the preseason after fracturing her ankle on loan.

“We have a really good mix of young talent and veteran experience, and we have high hopes and expectations for this team," Björkegren said. "I’m looking forward to continuing to build with our returning players, and I can’t wait to see how our offseason additions get on with the group.”

Racing Louisville roster:
Goalkeepers: Kelsey Daugherty, Katie Lund.
Defenders: Abby Erceg (NC Courage), Julia Lester, Satara Murray, Carson Pickett (NC Courage), Elli Pikkujämsä (KIF Örebro, Sweden).
Midfielders: Ary Borges (Palmerias, Brazil), Savannah DeMelo,  Rebecca Holloway, Jaelin Howell, Lauren Milliet, Wang Shuang.
Forwards: Kirsten Davis, Emina Ekic, Parker Goins, Uchenna Kanu (Tigres, Mexico), Thembi Kgatlana (Atletico Madrid, Spain), Jessica McDonald, Paige Monaghan (Gotham FC), Nadia Nadim.

Photo courtesy of Connor Cunningham/Racing Louisville

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