2019 is nothing like 2018.
Sure, the North Carolina Courage and Olympique Lyonnais Féminin are set for a rematch in the first place match to determine the best women’s club side in the world. Yes, everyone is going to keep saying how these games don’t matter because the European teams are still in preseason. Lyon is coming off of their fourth-straight UEFA Women’s Champions League title, which is one more than they had the last time these teams met.
But whatever the similarities, this year feels different. When the Courage faced off against Lyon in the inaugural ICC Women’s Tournament in Miami last year, they had no chance of winning. How could an American team without any of their star players beat an all-star squad from the continent? Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Merritt Mathias, Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, and Debinha were all gone because they were playing for their countries in the 2018 Tournament of Nations. There was no way that a team full of literal nobodies on the world’s stage could beat the best team in the world...until they did.
Fast forward to this season and there are high expectations for the Courage to repeat. They have a mostly healthy, albeit tired, lineup. All of those missing USWNT stars (if they can even be called ‘stars’) are back and ready to roll. The Courage, invincible all last year, seemed to regain that magic in the final 15 minutes of the match against Manchester City, a magic that had been missing from this season, as they scored two goals in the last 8 minutes to win the game. They treated their rain-soaked fans to an exhilarating moment.
But Lyon is also better this year
It might not seem possible, at first glance, for the best team in Europe to get better from one season to the next. After all, when you win four straight Champions League titles can you really improve the roster? The answer, of course, is yes. The real prize for Lyon president and owner Jean-Michel Aulas would be to lure some American players to his squad, but absent that upheaval, he looked to a closer neighbor with the same language.
Lyon was able to add Englishwomen Nikita Parris (forward) and Alex Greenwood (defender) to the already stacked squad. Parris started and played much of the game against Atletico Madrid, and it seems clear that the club sees her as an upgrade to the very one-dimensional Dutch forward Shanice van de Sanden. The addition of Greenwood was something of a surprise, but she came on and seemed well integrated with the team in her first real match, even if it was just a friendly. There were definitely times when superstars Ada Hegerberg or Eugenie Le Sommer expected Greenwood to pass the ball forward when she instead decided to take on a defender by herself, but those are small mistakes that can be rectified. When you have two of the best forwards in the world playing in front of you, it’s generally best if you let them knife up the defense.
The other side of the pitch features fellow English footballer Lucy Bronze, who is starting her third year with the premier French side. She doesn’t captain her national team, but she is one of the 12 players who have been nominated for the 2019 Best FIFA Women’s Footballer award. Ada Hegerberg quit playing for Norway after the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro tournament, but that didn’t stop her from also being nominated for the award. Wendie Renard, whose header in stoppage time sent Lyon through on Thursday night, is Lyon’s captain and has also been nominated for the award. Amandine Henry is the captain of France’s women’s national team and is also one of the nominees. It should go without saying that no other team in the world has as many players nominated. (The next closest is actually the Chicago Red Stars, with both Julie Ertz and Sam Kerr on the short list)
As much as I would love to pull out the homerism here and claim that the Courage are the more talented team with better players; that’s just not the case here. No team in the world is as talented as Lyon, but the great thing about soccer is that pure talent does not always make a winning side.
It’s only preseason, they’ll say
The North Carolina Courage should not be favored in this match, on paper. If the little players on a FIFA video game were to run around with these two lineups, the Courage would lose 100 times out of 100. Luckily, this is real life, and there is at least some chance that the home team pulls it out. Hell, last season the Courage trotted out a bunch of nobodies and held on for a win.
Lyon took it really easy in their first match. Courage head coach Paul Riley even said during the post-game press conference, “they probably played for Sunday. You know, they were knocking the ball around at like 10 miles per hour, so they’ll be ready for us on Sunday.” Commenting on the difference in intensity between the first and second games of the night.
The worst part of the whole situation is this: If the Courage win on Sunday night, everyone is going to brush it off with the statement about it being just preseason for Lyon, and if Lyon wins then everyone is going to claim they’re the best team in the world. I don’t buy that whole “it’s just preseason” crap. Every starter for Lyon, save Hegerberg who opted not to join Norway, was with their team for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup last month. They didn’t stop training. Six of the players who started on Thursday play together for France. Three of the players start for England. The last one, Dzsenifer Marozsán, has been playing with Lyon since 2016 and is intimately knowledgeable about the team and played for Germany at the World Cup. The idea that these players are just waking up from a deep sleep without competitive football is absurd, and that’s why it’ll be a hard-fought match on Sunday. That’s why the Courage have a very real chance of losing to this team that is nearly the best that money can buy.
When you tune in on Sunday to ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. ET, make sure you recognize that this match is a battle of titans. The players stepping out onto the pitch in white are literally the best that Europe can send, and they didn’t just get up off the couch. There are certain things to gain from having a season together, certainly, and there are fitness things that will be gained from playing every day. This is the best competition we have, though, and this is a fair battle between two healthy teams. If the Courage win, nothing should be taken away from them because of the schedule differences (maybe Lyon can fly us over for a rematch next spring during our preseason).
And if we lose? Well, we can still rub our four World Cup victories in their faces.