Alex Morgan's Lyon earns Champions League final after dispatching Carli Lloyd, upstart Man City
LYON, France -- The world will gather a little more than two years from now to settle a World Cup in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, a modern giant that rises out of a suburban setting on the outskirts of France's third-largest city. A stadium that literally gleamed in the sunlight leading up to the Champions League semifinal second leg between Olympique Lyon and Manchester City.
But to fulfill its ambition, its raison d'etre, if you will, Lyon had to earn its way out of this stadium, a second home in which it plays its biggest games. To be the best women's soccer team in the world, and live up to a roster that suggests it should be nothing less, it must retain the Champions League.
To one day soon challenge that supremacy, on the field and in public perception, Manchester City needed to go through this stadium, too. Even if its first Champions League campaign finally came to a close here.
Manchester City won the day 1-0 on Carli Lloyd's second-half goal.
Lyon won the two-legged semifinal 3-2 on aggregate to set up an all-French final against archrival Paris St.-Germain in Cardiff, Wales, on June 1.
Two years from now, this stadium will be Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan's joint objective. On Saturday, each American had her part to play in the story of European supremacy that passed through here.
The task in front of Manchester City on the day was daunting, a minimum of three goals needed to advance -- and that total sufficient only if Lyon was held scoreless at the other end.
The problem there? Lyon hadn't allowed three goals in a competitive match in nearly eight years. It was held scoreless far more recently, the second leg of a quarterfinal against German side Wolfsburg when it brought home a similarly comfortable lead from the first leg on the road. But Lyon had still produced 32 goals in its first seven Champions League matches this tournament.
The English team pushed forward from the kickoff and caught a brief glimpse of an opportunity with a wayward shot in the opening minute, but both possession and chances were difficult to come by for long stretches of the first half. The chances and the ball belonged to Lyon. A mesmerizing blast off the foot of Dzsenifer Marozsan, the Olympic hero from Germany, had to be parried away from the Manchester City goal. Wendie Renard, the tall French defender who must be accounted for on set pieces, repeatedly found open lanes toward goal on corner kicks.
Yet if at times under siege, Manchester City was far from cowed. It matched Lyon tackle for tackle and played with a defensive cohesion that allowed it to survive Lyon's possession.
Lloyd was a whirling dervish who helped set that tone in the opening half-hour, at one point trying to dribble out of her own corner to build possession but soon thereafter seen sprinting down the far opposite sideline in pursuit of a long pass. She played fearlessly, almost recklessly energetic at times, and Manchester City seemed to do the same. That isn't to say she was the pied piper -- defender Steph Houghton, one of the team's many English World Cup veterans, was equally impressive in her defensive scrambling, and Lucy Bronze was consistently dangerous down the flank.
But Lloyd was Lloyd, the confidence born of major titles -- or maybe just born in New Jersey -- on full display.
Then, after a calamitous pass from Lyon goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, Lloyd wasted no time in driving the gift back into the roof of the net for a 1-0 City lead on the day and an aggregate lifeline.
"I think the first leg, it showed a bit of our inexperience," Lloyd said. "Not being in a Champions League semifinal [before], giving Lyon a bit too much respect, in my opinion. Obviously, they are a quality team. But I think in this second leg -- we all saw what they're capable of doing, but we also know what we're capable of doing.
"We did change things tactically; I pushed up top. We played with four in the midfield. We smothered them, we fought, we worked hard. We got better as the game went on. The second half, we really displayed what we can do. It's a learning process for some of these players."
There were opportunities to put the semifinal truly up for grabs. Just before the goal born of good fortune, Lloyd did all the work to beat Renard, perhaps the world's best defender, and find the space to steer a shot toward the far post. Pushed away from goal, the rebound lingered tantalizingly in the box but went unfinished.
Barely 18 years old and one of the players people at Manchester City say has benefited the most from being around Lloyd's work habits, Georgia Stanway hesitated a beat too long on a pass that could have put Lloyd in on goal alone.
But for a team in its first season of Champions League soccer, a team that didn't exist in its current form when Lloyd scored the gold-clinching goal in the 2012 Olympics, Saturday was an exit that bodes well for the future, beginning with the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 13.
"I'm really proud of the team," Lloyd said "I know I've just come on board, but the way that they've started from Year 1 to Year 4, I think this was a true sign this team can compete."
As is often the case in soccer, of course, the hypotheticals went both ways. Even after its first-half chances that went for naught, Lyon might have come out with a draw or even a win on the night if the referee's whistle had been kinder to another American. Denied any call on a violent collision with Manchester City goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, when it appeared Morgan got a toe to the ball first, and whistled for a questionable foul on a later aerial duel in the box, Morgan had a slightly frustrating night as a second-half substitute.
She wasn't alone. The mood at the final whistle, as Lyon players celebrated with fans at one end of the stadium, was joyful but weary.
"I'm glad we're moving on, that's the most important thing," Morgan said. "But we wanted to come in here and win and play well. And I think that with Man City's pressure, we gave up too many balls and lost possession a little too much. But we do have to take away the positives and move forward."
Perhaps indicative of the nature of Lyon's existence was the subplot that played out between semifinal legs and in the pages of L'equipe, the national sports newspaper, on the morning of the second leg. Rather than concern about the players in the opposing jerseys, the drama centered on the Lyon players who weren't on the field in the first leg. At that time, Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas was quoted as expressing some concern after manager Gerard Precheur made just one substitution in the match; proven international talents such as Caroline Seger and Elodie Thomis were left unused.
If it is a positive sign for women's soccer that there can be a fully professional superteam like Lyon, perhaps it is no less a good thing for the sport that said team can produce a touch of tabloid drama. With close to 20,000 in the stands Saturday, as there were in Paris earlier in the day for PSG's win against Barcelona, there are expectations in Lyon. Those come with a roster that both allows and demands choices such as picking two starters out of Morgan, reigning European player of the year Ada Hegerberg and French star Eugenie Le Sommer.
With three games between Lyon and PSG over the next month, to settle the French league, French Cup and Champions League titles, there will be plenty of opportunities to meet those expectations. Or fall short of them.
But to be the best team in the world, Lyon first had to get to Cardiff.
Even if it won't be the only team leaving Lyon with a bright future.