Racing Louisville FC

Racing Louisville FC coach Christy Holly talks to his team during a training session on June 1.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The challenge facing Racing Louisville Football Club was daunting enough: a cross-country road trip to face one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s top teams in Portland, while coming off a 5-0 loss to another top team at North Carolina.

The addition of travel delays, fueled largely by weather issues, didn’t help. The club was supposed to get to the airport early Thursday, but morning thunderstorms pushed back training. Even so, after the players made it to the Louisville airport, they endured the first of their hurry-up-and-wait situations.

Christy Holly and the coaching staff had arranged to take a later flight, since they couldn’t get on the same flight as the team. When the coaches arrived at the airport three hours after the players, they found the team still there, waiting.

Holly and the staff left Louisville and arrived in Portland at 1 a.m. The team, as of 11 a.m. Friday, still was waiting in the Houston airport.

“It’s been an interesting 24 hours, God love them,” Holly said. “I would say they’re at their wits’ end.”

Holly already had planned to get the club into Portland early to conduct two training sessions on the ground before Saturday’s 10:30 p.m. kickoff. Now, one of those sessions has been lost, and the other likely will have to be adjusted.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Previewing Racing Louisville FC vs. Portland Thorns

“It’s a challenge generally getting over a flight when there’s a time change, getting the swelling out of your legs, getting the fatigue out,” he said. “When we’ve done it in the past, we’ve always had two training sessions prior to the game. We’ll find today if we can get one. But if there’s one group I had to do this with, this would be it. I’ve not had one complaint. They know it’s all out of our hands. We said from the start, if we get anything, we’re going to have to fight for it. And this is just an example.”

The team got its first taste of NWSL regular-season life on the road last week in a 5-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage, its first lopsided showing of the season, in which it allowed more goals than it had in its previous five matches combined.

Holly was keen to see how his team responded from that, and he has been pleased.

“We know the players we’re playing with have very limited experience in the NWSL,” he said. “That’s the cards that are on the table, and we don’t have a problem with it. When you lose 5-0, the first thing we said was, and we’ve lived by this, is that this is the best lesson we can get, this is fantastic. If we go through everything — and we’re just waltzing through games and not getting better — it’s not a good place to be.”

Given that perspective, Holly said the response of his players to the loss was “fantastic.”

“I think if we went to them and said you must win the NWSL and win every game and be so outcome oriented, we’d be in a lot of trouble right now,” he said. “But we sat them down the first day of the preseason and said, ‘This is going to be difficult. This is not for everybody. There’s going to be some miserable nights.’ But it’s not as miserable when we’re picking away at the learning that we want to take place with this team. We sat (Tuesday) morning and went through all the moments in the game, and said, ‘This is how we get better.’ Now we’ll see how we apply it, but you can see the energy is there. There’s a real determination. It stings. It’s not nice. But we’ve already laid out the landscape ahead of us. We know there’s going to be ups and downs. If it were just a linear way to the top, that would probably be a bad reflection of the league.”

Portland features a loaded roster that won the NWSL Challenge Cup and opened the regular season with a 5-0 rout of Chicago. They lost two straight before beating Gotham FC 1-0 last time out.

The Thorns not only feature quality, but star power, led by U.S. Women’s National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn as well as regulars Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch and Sophia Smith. The most prolific goal scorer in international soccer, Canadian Christine Sinclair, leads Portland’s attack.

Holly said Racing will have to employ “a few different approaches." 

“We need to try to force them to play in certain areas of the field,” he said. “On their roster, they have five or six World Cup winners. So they’re going to see more of the ball than us. That’s just the reality. We just have to try to keep them in areas where they don’t want it essentially. We think we know where they do want it, so it’s up to us to try to direct and manipulate them into certain areas where their least important players have more of an influence. You look at Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, (Christine) Sinclair, they’re going to want them on the ball pulling the strings. It’s a diamond midfield. And then the two up front, Sophia Smith, Simone Charley, or Morgan Weaver, they’re gong to push in behind and look to use their pace and physicality to threaten you. We’re excited about it because we think it’s a really good opportunity to learn and apply different approaches to the game. And we think if we can get our squeeze right and approaches right we can make this a really interesting game. But we’re also not naive. We know first game of the season they turned Chicago over, one of the strongest teams in the league, and turned them over as if they weren’t there.”

Holly said the travel and other challenges will be difficult, but having a young team can help in some ways.

“You’ve got the young players, which is the excitement about being in Portland and being in the big stadium, and they can be overwhelmed by that at times, but also that naiveté can bring a jovial energy, which is good, and that can impact the veterans,” he said. “And the veterans can let the players know the reality, from the second they land in Portland they’re going to have to dig deep ... We’re going to have to do a lot more theory-based work instead of on the field (with shortened preparation time).”

Still, if the theme of the season is growth for Louisville’s expansion side, now is the time when that can happen.

“It’s easy to respond when you win a game and things are going well,” Holly said. “I don’t ever want to hear about, ‘You knew that was going to happen, and it’s (lopsided losses are) going to come with an expansion team.’ We’re not going to stand for that. We know there are going to be challenges, but we also feel really good internally about the steps we’re taking to prepare and progress throughout the season. The energy has been fantastic. … We’re really pleased and hopeful.”

Saturday’s game will stream live on the NWSL’s Twitch channel.

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