From club branding, new fan groups, and all-important player recruitment, Jessy Parker
Humphreys talks to the names behind the big decisions at Racing Louisville as they prepare
for their first NWSL season.
How do you create a football team where there wasn’t one before?
The expansion system in the NWSL means that every couple of years a new franchise is created. In 2014 Houston Dash were the original additions, whilst Orlando Pride in 2016 are the most recent franchise side. In 2022, both Angel City and an as-yet unnamed team based in Sacramento will join.
Racing Louisville will make their debut this season. Based in Kentucky, the side will be the state’s only top-flight professional outfit in any sport. Their ‘brother’ club Louisville City play in the United Soccer League, the second division of men’s football in America.
A year ago, they had no ground and no manager. Over the past three months, they have participated in an expansion draft and a college draft in order to build a side from scratch.
Now with pre-season starting on February 1st, the real work begins.
“I got called probably this time last year and asked if I was interested in applying. I said no.” Head coach Christy Holly had sworn to himself that he would not manage in the NWSL again, following a two-year stint at Sky Blue FC.
It was James O’Connor who changed Holly’s mind. The former midfielder, with over 400 appearances for Stoke, Burnley, and Sheffield Wednesday, is now the Executive Vice President of Development at Racing Louisville.
“He was very clear on a couple of things,” said Holly. “The people involved, and the values that they wanted to live by on a daily basis.”
By the time Holly got down to Louisville, they had opened their new stadium and broken ground on the construction of the training facilities. “They took me into the front office and there were 55, 60 people working there. In my old job, I was the front office!
“I thought maybe this is an opportunity to do something from the bottom. Do it slow and methodically with the aim of trying to build something that should be here for the long term.”
“We saw a huge increase of members when Racing was announced,” says Erin Parrott. “There are a lot of members that are here just for the NWSL”.
Parrott is part of the LouCity Ladies, a group originally formed for women supporters of the men’s side, Louisville City. “Most of the women that we’re seeing joining us right now are women’s supporters that aren’t in Louisville.”
It is a trend that has also been noticed in the Lavender Legion, Racing Louisville’s official supporter group.
“We formed in August and started taking membership at the end of that month,” explains president Leigh Nieves. “I was thinking people from maybe Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, the surrounding states [would join]. Right now, we have members from 12 different states and three different countries!”
Other fans are closer to home. Brianna Roby, host of the WoSo Wine Up podcast, is a season ticket holder at Louisville City. “When the club announced there was going to be a women’s team, I just went all in,” she
says. “I just feel like women’s sports are so overlooked, so I wanted to make sure that there was a lot of support behind this women’s team.
“Massey, my co-host for the podcast, was actually living in Denver when Racing was announced,” Roby continues. “She was a big women’s soccer fan but didn’t necessarily have a team that she was supporting. So when Racing Louisville was announced, she decided to become a Racing fan. She’s actually just moved to Louisville!” Roby laughs. “She’s probably the only one so far that’s moved here for it.”
For many of these fans who had no previous connection to Louisville, the project seems to be part of the attraction. “To be a fan of something from the very beginning, from its concept, is very cool,” says Roby.
Leigh Nieves agrees. “The NWSL fan base can be kind of – I hate using the word, but – elitist. I think that starting from a new team definitely was a perk. Someone can be like ‘Okay well if I don’t understand anything, this is a great way for me to get in and understand the actual process of building a team.’ It can be really intimidating, throwing yourself into a fan base that’s already established.
“I will say this,” Nieves adds. “I think people were stoked about our colours and our branding. The lavender and mint looks so freaking awesome.”
With new fans watching on, it has been up to Holly and the Racing Louisville team to create a squad from scratch. “I don’t recommend it to anybody,” laughs Holly. “For me, the big process there is the recruitment of the person over the player.
“It’s trying to strike that balance between immediately getting a team on the field that is competitive, strong, and capable of winning. But then also looking a bit long term in bringing in the real gems that can be successful but not compromising on the actual character of the individual.”
There were some surprise names chosen thanks to the quirks of the NWSL draft system, including selecting the rights to Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord.Embed from Getty Images
“I said to Caitlin ‘Your rights are there, and I can’t not take your rights.’ I said ‘I know you’re happy at Arsenal, and I have zero intention of disrupting your happiness there. But at some point I’d love you at this club.’ If there’s a time when she wants to come to America, it’s important for us to have access to all the best players in the world.”
For the players that are actually arriving for pre-season training on February 1, Holly is looking forward to introducing them to the ethos of the club, as well as the facilities that have been built.
“A real specific moment [I’m looking forward to] will be the players walking on the pitch in the stadium.” Holly is convinced that the project at Racing Louisville demonstrates how bright the future of women’s football is.
He is excited to see the players realise that too. “You’ve worked for it. You’ve earned it. You get a platform. You’re the big names in town. The lights are shining on you.