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A final bow

CRAWFORD | Racing Louisville's inaugural season has been a testament to resilience

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Racing Louisville FC

Racing Louisville FC players celebrate a goal in a 3-1 victory over Orlando in Lynn Family Stadium.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The moment was worthy of the long inaugural season that Racing Louisville Football Club, its fans and front office and, most importantly, its players have endured but also enjoyed.

When Racing ran away from Orlando in a 3-1 victory before a club record 8,488 fans in Lynn Family Stadium 10 days ago, it was a remarkable testament to resilience.

The club was down several players gone from international call-ups. It was depleted by injury. It was playing for an interim coach who was appointed after the first coach in club history was fired for reasons the club still hasn't made known. Its hopes for a postseason berth had already been eliminated as the result of a seven-game winless streak.

For a team in that situation to feed off its fan base and deliver a stirring victory anyway is an illustration that, despite all the struggles of this inaugural season, something is going right with the club.

"This is all about them, and for what they’ve been through, I couldn’t be happier for them," interim coach Mario Sanchez said. "They’ve stuck with it. They’ve grown. They continue to get better, and they deserve it. I keep telling everybody about the character of this team, and sometimes results don’t show that. Tonight, we absolutely saw what these ladies were all about and what this team was all about. . . . You can see the quality come out, but again I’ve told everyone that this team is made up of a lot of character. They’ve been through a lot, and nobody is ever going to know what they’ve been through, but they showed that they are winners. "

It may not have been a storybook ending, but it was at least an end fitting of the effort that this team has never failed to muster despite overwhelming circumstances.

It would've been a great moment to roll the credits. But it wasn't the end. That comes tonight, at least in terms of Racing Louisville's home schedule, when Gotham FC visits Lynn Family Stadium at 7:30. One more chance to make a bit of magic happen in front of a crowd that is expected to rival the one that watched Louisville beat Orlando.

"It's exciting to have the fanbase," said Katie Lund, who saved the Women's Cup victory in goal, then stepped out to boot home the game-winner in the 10th round of penalty kicks. She'll earn a second straight start with team captain Michelle Betos sidelined by injury. "It surely motivates us every night that we go out there. It's been a long season, but with their help, I think it's motivated us to finish on a strong note. Thursday will be really fun to share our last game with the fans."

Racing Louisville already has posted more points than any expansion club in NWSL history. It grabbed history of its own when it won The Women's Cup, beating FC Bayern Munich in a shootout. Over the course of the season it added international talent that will serve the franchise well moving forward: Striker Ebony Salmon and back Gemma Bonner from England, Nadia Nadim from Denmark by way of Paris Saint-Germain. Its No. 1 draft pick, Emily Fox, is seeing time with the U.S. Women's National Team. Cheyna Matthews has worked her way back as the season has progressed, and is back from work with the Jamaican National team.

Others who saw international duty include Freja Olofsson for Sweden and Vanessa Cara for the Dominican Republic.

"They're all trickling in," Sanchez said on Tuesday. ". . . We'll evaluate them to see where they are. If they're healthy they'll be available for selection like the rest of the players. One thing we love is having the number of international players we have, it shows the progress of the club."

Everyone would've liked to see the club climb into the playoffs, to pursue a Cinderella run that could culminate in Lynn Family Stadium, new home of the league championship after it was moved from Portland.

In the rockiest of NWSL seasons, it would've been a great story.

But even without that playoff run, this club's first season has been a great story. Fans might've come out to pay some tribute to US Women's national star Alex Morgan when Orlando came to town, the same as they might for Carli Lloyd when Gotham visits on Thursday.

But I also would like to think they're responding to the resilience they've been shown by the home team, which has rolled with every punch, and saved some of its best for last.

"Our club from Day 1 has never made the excuse of being an expansion team," Lund said. "This year has only made us more hungry for the years to come. We've established a fan base and it's only going to get better. We're looking forward to a new head coach. I think it's only good things ahead."

With an average attendance of 6,594, Racing Louisville ranks second in the 10-team NWSL. It's a number that figures to grow.

"I've been talking to everyone about how fun they are to coach and how hard-working they are, and I guess you see the reward for the performance," Sanchez said. "I was so happy for them. Everyone knows how much they've been through, the league has been through. But most importantly just the work they've put in. And not only was it a win, but the performance was spectacular. Two minutes in you give up the goal, but how we bounced back and what we did was fantastic. I'm really proud of them."

The whole city should be, too.

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