Aug 18, 2019
- Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.
CARY, N.C. — It is the rare team that can make Olympique Lyon sweat, even with the assistance of a stifling summer evening in North Carolina. But rarer still is, well, Lyon.
There is still only one of those. The world might not be big enough for two of them.
The best team in women’s soccer removed the lone nagging impediment to using that label with a 1-0 win against the North Carolina Courage in the Women’s International Champions Cup final. After losing to the Courage in the final of the inaugural edition of the event last year, Lyon now holds not only this title, but the past four Champions League titles and 13 French titles.
This wasn’t a referendum on the women’s game in North America and Europe. It wasn’t even a referendum on the more select group of elite teams in Europe that contend for the Champions League, teams increasingly affiliated with giant men’s clubs, and the best teams in the NWSL, often affiliated with MLS and the USL.
This was about one team, a team so good and so rich in talent — not to mention just rich — that it rarely gets tested. It rarely has to play any way but the way it wants. But it was tested Sunday. North Carolina challenged Lyon to prove it could play faster, adjust quicker.
Lyon showed its greatness not by imposing its will, but by doing just that. It played the game North Carolina wanted to play. And when the moment presented itself, Dzsenifer Marozsan didn’t hesitate to show why the best team in the world can win that way, too.
“This was a game that they had to play their absolute best,” Crystal Dunn said. “They got a really great chance, and they put it in the net. … We didn’t sit in, we didn’t allow them to just play the game and us back off them. I think we played them straight up. We had some great moments. We had them chasing for times in the game, and they had us chasing, too.”
In the sixth minute, Marozsan gathered a short pass in a relatively benign part of the field — just inside the midfield stripe and a few yards from the sideline. Standing with her back to the goal Lyon was attacking, she held the ball at her feet just long enough to survey her options.
Captain of the German national team and a mainstay in Lyon’s titles, Marozsan is about as savvy a player as there is in the sport. But she dawdled in this instance, or whatever the German word is for dawdle, and didn’t see North Carolina midfielder Denise O’Sullivan coming.
“She was probably surprised,” O’Sullivan allowed afterward with a grin. “She’s probably like, ‘She’s a small girl.’ I’m a fighter, and I’ll keep battling against top players. That’s part of my game, and I’ll keep doing that.”
O’Sullivan picked Marozsan clean and launched the Courage on an attack that was stymied only after Lyon’s Lucy Bronze threw her body at Lynn Williams in the box to suffocate a shot.
Marozsan played the moment like the second game of the preseason for a team that usually has all the time in the world even in games that count. O’Sullivan played like it was the NWSL.
A day before the final, Lyon coach Jean-Luc Vesseur said rather bluntly that he thought his team was more talented. He also said they weren’t used to playing at the pace North Carolina plays.
The first part is difficult to argue. The second part is impossible to dispute.
“It’s amazing,” Marozsan said of the pace. “It’s really — speed and really athletic. We don’t see that right now in France. I hope it will be like this, but I think it’s more technical right now.”
Except that Lyon didn’t wilt under that pressure. It didn’t melt away in the humidity on a night when the heat index was still high enough to require water breaks in each half. It started playing quicker, speeding up passing sequences and attacking in kind when North Carolina pushed forward and left itself exposed.
On one such counter in the 20th minute, Wendie Renard defended a long pass to North Carolina’s Kristen Hamilton, then launched a counter the other way. Lyon’s Nikita Paris beat Jaelene Hinkle with pace on the right side, no easy feat, and got in a dangerous cross. The ball made it all the way through the box, where Marozsan launched a bicycle attempt that wasn’t so very far off the mark. There wasn’t any dawdling on the ball this time.
“In the NWSL, our pressure, a lot of teams can’t play out of that,” Merritt Mathias said. “Lyon is technical. They’re very good. They have quality players in every position, and they are very technical. They are making passes and getting out of pressure that we probably would pick the ball off in transition into a scoring opportunity [against NWSL teams].”
They couldn’t do that this time, which meant the game was still scoreless when Bronze sprinted into space on the right side in the 57th minute and passed the ball to Marozsan as the German ran onto it at the top of the 18-yard box. Without so much as an extra touch, Marozsan curled a first-time shot past Courage goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe for a breathtaking goal.
“I just see one choice, and I did it,” Marozsan said. “It was a perfect pass, and for sure a great shot.”
Into the 90th minute of ostensibly a preseason game, the teams had combined to make just three substitutions. They finished well below what the generous preseason rules allowed. North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper stood with hands on hips waiting for the water break in the second half. Lyon’s Amandine Henry trudged up field in the slow march of the desperately weary.
Lyon’s celebration at the final whistle said it all. It wasn’t the raucous outpouring of emotion that comes with a Champions League title — a final Lyon won at a comfortable canter against an overmatched Barcelona last spring.
But it wasn’t just another game, either. With a crowd of more than 8,000 looking on, it mattered.
“There was a hype around it — there are two teams that believe they’re the best in the world,” Mathias said. “I think we all came out and were like, ‘We want to beat Lyon, and we want to put our mark on this game.’ You take a second and look around and the upper deck is filled, we filled up the bottom deck. That’s a really cool thing to look around. … It did feel like a final.”
There are a lot of very good teams in the world, more than ever before. But the team at the top won’t easily be dislodged.
That seems to be a theme in women’s soccer this summer.
The U.S.? Still the best in the international game. Lyon? Still the best there is in the club game.