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5 key storylines as Racing kicks off the Challenge Cup

By Jonathan Abraham, 04/06/21, 10:00AM EDT


Here's what to watch for in the NWSL expansion side's inaugural games.

Bee Buck Photography

Racing Louisville FC is days away from its inaugural NWSL game, to be played at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Orlando Pride, as part of the Challenge Cup tournament. For the expansion side, there are several questions to answer in its first competitive matchup in the league to be played at Lynn Family Stadium. Here are the story lines to watch.

Opportunity outside the regular season

As the new club jumps into NWSL competition, it doesn’t have to worry about one thing in particular: points. The Challenge Cup will allow Racing four competitive games against pro competition before games start counting in the standings when the regular season begins in mid-May.

Sure, it’s not ideal to launch a new side amid a pandemic. But this is one benefit Racing will receive for the timing given past NWSL expansion teams were thrown right into their respective seasons. The Challenge Cup will allow Racing the chance to go through some growing pains before it’s time to start stressing points.

The international window beckons

The NWSL is loaded with star power, but the brightness diminishes during international call ups that opposing sides will have to deal with as soon as Game 1 in the Challenge Cup. Before Racing-Orlando kicks off, the U.S. Women’s National Team will play at Sweden in a game that will include the Pride’s former FIFA World Player of the Year, Alex Morgan. The UWSNT also plays April 13 in France, calling into question whether the Washington Spirit will have available defenders Kelly O’Hara and Emily Sonnett when Racing visits on April 15.

That said, big names will be visiting Lynn Family Stadium, particularly the duo of Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Krieger, who aren’t away on international duty, and Marta, the Brazilian striker who with 17 goals holds the record for most scored in FIFA Women’s World Cup history.

Who starts for Racing Louisville FC?

Racing should prove to be a tough scout for at least its initial Challenge Cup opponents given the mystery of its lineup. Sure, there are apparent sure things, such as inclusion of experience goalkeeper Michelle Betos and Yuki Nagasato. But the bulk of Racing’s roster consists of young players looking to become regular NWSL starters for the first time.

In particular, the forward position is crowded on Racing’s roster, begging the question of who will appear up top alongside Nagasato. Each of Savannah McCaskill, Cece Kizer, Emina Ekic and Katie McClure have featured during the preseason, adding to Racing’s most competitive position battle.

Let’s see how they play

While seeing his inaugural roster in action throughout Racing’s preseason, head coach Christy Holly strived to play quick and press opponents. During its preseason scrimmages against college teams (Louisville, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, and Florida State twice) this style of play rewarded Racing with plenty of goals.

While it was a successful approach against some top college sides, how will that translate in the toughest women’s soccer league in the world? At least until it proves otherwise, Racing will be considered an underdog expansion club. Louisville can shed that label if it’s able to continue playing quickly, press and translate to a viable attack in the NWSL.

And finally, there will be fans

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the sports industry immensely, especially when it prevented fans from seeing their teams. The NWSL went without any public attendance all of 2020, but thankfully the league has allowed home market play and supporters in the stands for the Challenge Cup.

Lynn Family Stadium, also home to USL Championship side Louisville City FC, successfully hosted about 4,850 fans per game, near 30% capacity, last year. Racing will likewise play in front of lavender-clad supporters against Orlando and on April 26 against the North Carolina Courage. Could the support boost the home side?

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