12 November 2020

Racing Louisville’s Christy Holly on how he’s building a team from scratch to compete - and win - in the NWSL

Racing Louisville’s head coach Christy Holly should soon have a better idea of the players he will have at his disposal when the club is introduced in the NWSL next year. 

Holly, who was a part of the US national team staff and used to be a coach at Sky Blue FC, admits he has his eyes on a few players he wants to bag in today’s expansion draft to add a competitive edge to the team. And he is already promising clubs will not have an easy ride when they come up against his side.

Bold words indeed, and in a far-reaching interview with NewsChain, Holly speaks about building a team from the ground up, why relegation and promotion in the US league would be good for the game and the ever-growing competition between the NWSL and England’s Women’s Super League.

Northern Irishman Holly, who was announced as head coach in August, said: “For sure it's a little bit different. It's a very exciting job given the fact it's an expansion team there's a real opportunity to put your own print on it and try to do it right from the very beginning so that's exciting.

"Working with the league and getting through the challenges of Covid in terms of recruitment, in terms of bringing players in from overseas, that's challenging but I do see that as exciting.

“There’s good energy right now, exciting and I just want to get on the pitch. I want to get on the field and get going really so it's full of appreciation that these early steps are probably the most important.”

But he says he’s not targeting a specific finish in the table in their first season.

"It's important to look back at the success of expansion teams in recent years and what I mean by that is not necessarily saying 'okay that's what we're going to do’ actually our outlook is that we have to learn from the lessons they are leaving behind. Everybody's success leaves us clues, everybody's failures leaves us clues and that's not to say those teams were successful or failures.

"But there's information there that we can learn from that hopefully allows us to do it better and people who come after us can look at us and do it better again, that's the beauty of history. What I will say to me as a head coach and then James [O’Connor, vice-president], Brad [Estes, president] and John [Neace, owner] do this right because we want this to be sustainable and I think you never get to do the first time twice.

"So that's going to be key in terms of the people we recruit, the players we recruit and message that we send. As a person I am exceptionally competitive and I want to be in every single game. Does that mean we will win every game? No. Does that mean we will lose every game? Absolutely not, but we're going to compete. 

“We're going to make a team that makes a challenge for every team and our hope is if you leave a game with us with points you've earned them.”

Racing are not where expansion stops in the NWSL as Angel City, part-owned by US actress Natalie Portman and other stars, will join the league in 2022.

Holly, who played professionally for Limavady United, has said the rate of progression in the league is significant.

"I think it's a statement. I think the bigger question is what is happening in England and does that concern us? But truthfully I think it's brilliant, it's great, it's an advocate for the women's game I think it's fantastic. What it does is it forces us to behave differently, make adjustments and step it up again. 

"I think there has been a level of complacency because we were producing the best players and playing the most competitive games. I think that’s a key piece for us so I think it's a big statement particularly with the ownership package that's coming in.

“I think it's another mark in America that is very popular so by the end of 2022 the hope is that you have maybe 12 teams in the league. All of a sudden you've got 12 teams in a league in markets that are very popular. I think we've sold over 5,000 season tickets, we can sell out up to 18,000, and with time you expect all 12 teams to be competitive which is one of the biggest selling points of the NWSL.”

As Holly pointed out, the main talking point of summer transfer news was US stars coming to play in the WSL and how the English league has become the place players want to play.

"It's tremendous, it's brilliant. I think the expectation is that we are all sitting worried and panicked. I think there are, and I hope there are, some who are worried and panicked and are making decisions. I see it as a great thing. I hope Sam [Mewis] and Rose [Lavelle] and Alex [Morgan] and Christen [Press] and Tobin [Heath], to name a few, go over and have a great experience and come back better players for it. 

"There's a layer of playing for Manchester United, Arsenal, as an Arsenal fan I can completely appreciate that! I think it's fantastic, it's an extra home and the bigger part for me is in the men's game there's layers. You have the Premier League, you have the Championship, you have League One, League Two. 

“In America you have the MLS, the USL you have PDL and so on and so forth. In the women's game it's not as prevalent which makes it very difficult. You’re having people playing the best in the world or not having a home. The sooner we can add levels to that worldwide, not just in England and US, the more advantageous it would be for the young aspiring players.”

English women’s football has relegation and promotion throughout the tiers of the game but the US model does not include this aspect of the sport.

Holly says while he doesn’t believe it would be introduced in America, he would support it in the NWSL.

"I'm a big fan of relegation and promotion. Personally I don't think it will happen in America, it doesn’t seem to be a model across American sports never mind just in soccer but I would certainly be an advocate of it.

"I think those levels would be important because right now when it comes to recruiting players we're all competing for the same players and everybody has their homework done on the relevant players. I take a lot of pride and joy in scouting and recruiting players that are the 'rough diamonds' but the gamble is quite substantial.

“When they're coming from a recreational league that they’ve never heard of and all of a sudden they are playing in the best league in the world so there’s challenges to that. That's where you hope more levels or layers to the pyramid would be helpful for every international team in the world.”

While support for the WSL has increased, particularly after the World Cup in 2019, the growth in the women’s game was seen years earlier in the NWSL.

Holly credits a number of reasons for this difference in support.

"I think as a country [US] it’s progressive, the want and the need is still in England and other countries too, I just think there's a greater population here. There's greater access to athletes and there's more of a need to take them very seriously because there's a sheer quantity.

"I think the other piece where the NWSL have an advantage is when you think of the men's Premier League. It's a marketing monster and it's very, very tough to compete against. I've been a massive advocate of the women's game and in giving them even more than they get now and I hope in ten years’ time it's a different conversation. 

"I think when we take a few layers off of the onion and we look at it we know that WSL is competing directly for attention and fans that are embedded in the men’s Premier League. That's a huge monster to go against so that's a challenge. 

"Here we have the MLS, which is fantastic as well, but I think there’s more of an opportunity because the MLS isn’t as reputable as the Premier League. There’s more of an opportunity to split the fans across more evenly.”

He added the different time zones in America also helps the popularity of the NWSL.

"You have the part geographically, you get three different time zones in America so there’s an opportunity to hit a number of different audiences throughout a day versus England 3pm kick off on a Saturday is prime time.

"Having lived in England and grown up in Ireland, 3pm Saturday you know what we're going to be doing right, so the real competitive time and the weekend schedule can be hectic.

“You look at some of the players playing in England, they are absolutely brilliant and they deserve the focal point. I think it’s just the competition is so much. There's so many eyes on the men's game that it's tough to bring them across at times, not to say that's right, but I think that's the challenge.”

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