Lyon heads into Thursday’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final against Wolfsburg knowing change is afoot following the match.
The 10-time defending French league champions are in search of their third UEFA Champions League title in a rematch of the 2013 final, which Wolfsburg won.
Star players Amandine Henry, Louisa Necib and Lotta Schelin are all confirmed to be departing Lyon after this season, with Henry headed to the United States to play for Portland Thorns FC. Henry’s move to Portland, on a contract which runs through the end of the 2017 NWSL season, is a watershed moment for the still fledgling league.
The NWSL is in its fourth season of what has been a slow and modest start compared to its failed predecessors, the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11). Salaries in the NWSL are modest at best, ranging from $7,200 to $39,700.
Whereas WPS lacked a salary cap and could pay exorbitant amounts to Marta at the rate of $500,000 per year (a rate which hasn’t been matched since), NWSL operates under more strict financial terms. So to Henry’s arrival in Portland isn’t a cash-grab – nothing of the sorts. One of the best players in the world – legitimately on the shortlist for such a title – is actually taking less money because she wants to play in the United States. (Exact details weren’t specified, but the league maximum is a very safe assumption.)
This move is about the soccer and the culture; it’s about the experience. And that speaks volumes for the NWSL and specifically Portland, which is increasingly the leading candidate in the claim of being the epicenter of the women’s soccer world.
Henry will join Portland some time in June. She recently spoke exclusively with FourFourTwo (through a translator; she jokes that she is working on her English) about why she is leaving Lyon for Portland, what she hopes to gain in her time in the U.S. and her ambitions to be the best in the world.
How did your move to Portland become reality?
Portland, through the coach, contacted me through my agent. [Sonia Souid] told [me] that the opportunity to join Portland was concrete and they were very interested to have a player like Amandine. I was very excited because I’m at the end of my contract in June and it’s a great opportunity to join one of the best leagues in the world. I’ve always been very attracted by the United States and the level of the national team. I am very pleased and happy.
How much of the NWSL have been able to watch thus far? How do you view how it compares to the rest of the leagues in the world?
What’s different between the U.S. league and the French league and what attracted me a lot is that the league is much more [competitive], which means that the best players are in different clubs, not like in France where you have Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain and two other teams. But you know that it is one of these teams that is going to win the league. In the U.S., that is different, and I cannot wait to join and have an important game each weekend.
You are giving up Champions League and proximity to home to come and play in the U.S. – and on the West Coast. What are some sacrifices you are making for this move?
Personally, of course, the sacrifice is about family, because I will be very far – a nine-hour flight. Professionally, of course it is to quit a big club like Lyon, because it’s a big club in Europe which is investing a lot. The team continues to compete and perform and win. It could be hard because I’ve spent nine seasons there; it’s like home. And I have teammates and the Champions League is a competition I like a lot to play, but I’ve won it twice already and I’m hoping to win it a third time this season, then I will [leave] France and Lyon as winning three Champions Leagues. I want to discover something else; I will have no regret.’
There is a salary cap in the NWSL and a restriction on individual earnings. Surely Lyon offered more money to stay there. Are you taking a significant pay cut to come here? If so, why?
The financial aspect at this point of my career, not only as an athlete, but as a woman – the financial aspect was not at all the most important. I’m lucky because I want to [play] football, to learn English. It’s very important in my career, even after my athletic career. I want to discover another country, another way to play football. For many years, I’ve been attracted by the United States. This is a great moment to do it before the end of my career.
What are your goals for this season?
The most important for me is to integrate very well with the team, to adapt very quickly and to win the championship.
Many already consider you to be one of the best players in the world. Is one of your goals to be officially recognized as the best player in the world, as FIFA World Player of the Year?
Yes, of course one of my objectives is to improve myself. There is a difference between the French league and the U.S. In France, it’s more based on tactics and technically, but in the U.S. I am very impressed by the athleticism of the players. I have to learn that. I hope to bring what I know, but I know that I have to learn and I’m young and I have to improve. I want to improve to one day become one of the best players in the world.
French players have spoken for years about the final piece of the national team being the mental aspect – learning from the Americans in that regard. Is that winning mentality something you hope to pick up on here and bring to the national team?
Of course it is something I want to discover, the mentality of the Americans, because I am very impressed with the Americans when they are playing national teams, even if they are losing, they are going to fight until the last second to draw or win the game. They never give up and that is very impressive. They are really warriors. We have to learn that, and if I can bring that to the French national team, I will be happy. I cannot wait to discover that – this aspect is very important for me.
Portland regularly draws 15,000 fans per game for what is probably the best environment in women’s soccer. What are you looking forward to from those fans?
I’ve seen that in Portland, everything is adapted in women’s football. In France – in Lyon – even in the Champions League, we have 12,000 people, but in a stadium of 50,000 people, you cannot really feel them. Of course, it is very good and they are very happy. But in Portland, the stadium is never [inaudible]. I watched the first game on TV and the first thing you see is that the stadium in Portland is full and we have great support there. I cannot wait to play there. It was a very important point for me. It motivates me.
Jeff Kassouf is U.S. editor of FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.
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