Tonight at 9:00 pm ET the North Carolina Courage will face off against Olympique Lyonnais Women to determine the champion of the first International Champions Cup Women’s Tournament. The Courage will still be without six of their players due to the Tournament of Nations while Lyon will be without two of theirs for other reasons. Regardless, this will be the most difficult match the North Carolina, or any team from the NWSL, has ever faced.
Lyon or the Warriors?
I considered comparing Lyon to one of the big men’s sides, like Madrid or Munich, but it’s really much worse than that. Lyon is to women’s soccer what the Warriors are to the NBA right now. They can’t get every star player from every team to join their side, they aren’t the global best-XI or something like that, but they are approximately as competitive as the Warriors are now that they’ve also added Cousins to their team.
Eugenie Le Sommer, who scored twice in the 3-0 win over Manchester City, has 68 goals on 153 appearances for the Franch WNT while defender Wendie Renard has played in 101 games for her country. Lyon also has a handful of other France WNT players with under 100 caps. They have 23-year-old Ada Hegerberg, from Norway, who stepped away from the national team after a disappointing 2017 Euro performance despite being one of the best strikers on the continent. Shanice van de Sanden helped the Netherlands win that same tournament, England’s Lucy Bronze is one of the best defenders in the world, Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan is another one of the best defenders in the world, and Japan’s Saki Kumagai was part of the 2011 Women’s World Cup side that defeated the United States to win that tournament. I think you get the point, this team is absolutely stacked.
I should briefly mention the players for Lyon that aren’t with the team. Dzsenifer Marozsán (Germany’s captain) and Sarah Bouhaddi (France’s NT goalkeeper) are both recovering from injury and didn’t make the trip to the United States.
So how will Lyon play? The cheeky answer, and the one given by Lyon’s coach in the post game press conference, basically boils down to however they want. If you imagine the United States Women’s National Basketball Team playing in the Olympics, that’s the kind of freedom that Lyon has. All of their players are top global talents, and while they don’t have an absolute power to get any player they want from some of the top countries (like the United States or Germany), that doesn’t stop them from assembling a super-team. They showed two different styles of play in the semifinal match against Manchester City.
In the first style they come close together and play pinpoint short passes to one another until they find an opening to exploit and they quickly break into the attack. This is how they scored the three quick goals against Man City on Thursday. They calmly worked the ball through the midfield until they found the moment to strike. After scoring those three goals they seemed to change to a more counter-attacking style, where they would wait for Manchester to work the ball past midfield before clamping down. This caused the defensive midfielders for City to move forward, and then they sprung the counter. If the game were closer I believe they could have scored in this system, but they didn’t need to and a few great saves were made against them during this phase.
The Courage are absolutely more vulnerable to the first system. Especially with three of their starting midfielders absent, North Carolina tends to chase the ball a bit when teams try to play possession. Usually this is fine because small mistouches and spring offensive opportunities for the American side, but against a side like Lyon the errors are going to be far less common and they might simply wear down as the game progresses.
So what will the Courage do?
Paul Riley has no interest in doing anything different in this match than he has in any other game this year. His team will press high and hard, looking to create turnovers and fast counters. They will try to use their physical prowess on offense to create opportunities and rely heavily on the midfield and centerbacks to stymie any fact breaks that come against them. I won’t say that is the wrong move, but Riley himself admitted after the game against PSG that the press was far less effective against a team with such technical ability.
The one advantage the Courage have is fitness. They are in the middle of their season and accustomed to recovering quickly and playing on short rest. For the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes they are going to be the more comfortable side, and they probably need to score at least once during both of those windows, just like they did against PSG. Then there’s little more than hoping to hold back the flood of shots that will come in the middle and maybe, just maybe, get a third goal on the counter somewhere in the middle.
This should be a fantastic match, even if we don’t come out ahead. You can catch the game on ESPN2 at 9:00 pm ET.