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Still standing

CRAWFORD | Racing Louisville pulls together, pulls off draw with OL Reign after difficult week

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Nadia Nadim

Nadia Nadim celebrates a goal putting Racing Louisville FC ahead of OL Reign 1-0 at Lynn Family Stadium.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After the week Racing Louisville FC has had – firing the only coach in franchise history only three days before facing a star-studded OL Reign side that had won three straight and four of its past five to climb to second on the NWSL table – you could forgive the home team if it wasn't in top form on Saturday night in Lynn Family Stadium.

But that wasn't the statement Racing Louisville players wanted to send. Declining the offer of a day off to process the dismissal of coach Christy Holly, Racing players hit the pitch with interim coach Mario Sanchez bright and early on Wednesday to begin to process how they would continue to improve the rest of the season.

In the end, Racing couldn't preserve an early lead, but still came away with its first point since August 18 in a 1-1 draw in front of a crowd of 6,337.

They were clearly a determined group to start the match against Reign, which was playing its third game in a week and was without Megan Rapinoe, the league's No. 7 goal-scorer and the team's No. 2 scorer.

Racing seized a 1-0 lead in the 23rd minute. Nadia Nadim was running between two Reign players on the counterattack when a long pass ahead from CeCe Kizer was deflected in the box. Nadim was quicker to the carom than the defenders, and fired a shot that deflected off the keepers hand and into the net to put the home team ahead.

The goal was Nadim's third NWSL goal in seven games, moving her into the league's top 20 in goals scored this season, and reflected the pressing with purpose that the team hoped to revive.

"This game, you just have to run, and run with a purpose," Kizer said. "I think you saw that with our goal, in particular just winning the ball and finding a high player in Nadia who was able to finish at the end. . . . I think for us the statement was made. We just wanted to go out and have all-around performances, and have everyone embrace their role whether you play 90 minutes or you play five minutes. I think we can all be proud of ourselves and each other. These last few days we've leaned on each other and remembered our ultimate goal is to make the playoffs. And I think we can still reach that goal."

Sanchez made a few changes. He moved Emily Fox, the No. 1 NWSL draft pick this year, from left back to right, with center back Nealy Martin taking over the left side. He inserted forward Jorian Baucom into the starting lineup. And the club got back to pressing high, looking for chances to score on the counterattack, which in fact happened to lead to their only goal.

But more than anything, Sanchez said tonight's performance was a testament to the players, and their determination not to lose ground after the loss of a head coach.

"I couldn't be more proud of these women," he said. "After the week they've had, to come out and play against one of the best teams shows the character of this team. They came together. That's the most important thing. How the game went? An amazing first half, then they dug in and found a way to get a result. I told them, that's the minimum. What I've learned quickly is that we have good players. We need to go on a run here and have high expectations and continue to grow and get better."

The Racing intensity waned in the second half as Reign became more aggressive offensively. That finally resulted in a goal from NWSL leading scorer Bethany Balcer, her ninth of the season, in the 74th minute. Reign fired 27 shots -- 10 of them from U.S. National Team standout Rose Lavelle.

The final result was the fourth 1-1 decision of the regular season for Racing Louisville, and the third in the past five games, which in itself signals a bit of progress.

"For us, we want to get goals early on and we press to score goals, and I think once we get on we need to keep that momentum going and not get settled into the game and not getting too lackadaisical in the final third," Kizer said. "We need to put together all-around performances, take it 10 minutes as a time, and try to improve on that the rest of the season."

Look for that pressure to continue. After a congested stretch the past two weeks, Sanchez seemed to indicate that players wanted that aggression.

"Philosophically, the way I see it, the way the club sees it, we want to be a high-intensity team," Sanchez said. "We want to press high. We want to play forward. This club was built on entertaining and winning. We feel that what we saw tonight, especially in the first 60 to 65 minutes, is something we can grow from and move forward, and have a clear identity, which is the biggest thing. . . . This is nothing about me. This is about them, and coming together, and showing who they are and what they're about. As a team, and a collective, the energy was awesome."

Mostly, the Racing players were determined that losing a coach would not amount to losing a game – even if the opponent is one of the top teams in the NWSL. Gemma Bonner said the key was players drawing closer together and remembering what brought them all here.

"Honestly it was a challenging week," she said. "There's no hiding away from that. But we stuck together and stayed strong, and every day the team brought positive energy. What we're here to do is play football, and that's ultimately what we want to do and what we need to focus on. We went out tonight and put the energy in. You've got a team around you – you play for yourself first and the person next to you and the whole team. There's so many people who have given up a lot to be on this team, to get to be professional footballers. It's what we want to do, go out and enjoy it. I think sometimes we have to remember that. Tonight I think we put all the energy we had into that, and I think we just need to put that into the full 90 minutes next time."

The next time will be Saturday at Orlando, with a 7 p.m. kickoff.

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