Rapinoe makes pioneering strides in Europe with eye on NWSL
U.S. women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe has only been in France for a week, but she's assimilating pretty well so far, judging by the spot in Lyon she called me from on Sunday: the restaurant owned by Barcelona's Éric Abidal, where Rapinoe was happily watching the Arsenal-Manchester City game on television.
The most Continental-style U.S. player recently signed a six-month deal with the Continent's (and probably the world's) best women's club team, Olympique Lyonnais, the two-time defending champion of the UEFA women's Champions League. If Rapinoe wins the Champions League trophy with Lyon -- which has qualified for the quarterfinals -- she would become the first U.S. women's player to do so since Ali Krieger and Gina Lewandowski did it for Frankfurt in 2007-08.
"That would be awesome [to earn a winner's medal]," said Rapinoe, who was one of 10 players short-listed for the 2012 FIFA women's world player of the year award. "Hopefully more U.S. players will come and play in Europe. It's a great experience, and it's a huge challenge. I speak very little French, and having the language barrier and the difference in style [compared to U.S. teams], it will be good for my game and for me as a person."
Lyon has a star-studded squad that includes most of the top French national team players (Louisa Necib, Camille Abily, Élodie Thomis, Sonia Bompastor, Eugénie Le Sommer) and several international standouts (Sweden's Lotta Schelin and Japan's Shinobu Ohno). Domestically, Lyon is blowing away the competition this season, winning all 13 of its games by a combined score of 88-4. In Champions League games, Lyon is 4-0 with a combined score of 23-0.
Champions League games should get more competitive from here on out, however, and Rapinoe will benefit from the fierce battle for Lyon starting spots in practice every day. "It's incredibly competitive, and we have a lot of players across the midfield as wingers or No. 10s," she said. "The coach [Patrice Lair] is big into earning your spot and not just bringing in players and saying you have a starting position."
Last year's women's Champions League final drew a record crowd of 50,212 to see Lyon beat Frankfurt 2-0 in Munich. UEFA smartly schedules the women's final in the same city as the men's Champions League final two days before the event. This season's women's final will take place in London at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge on May 23. (The men's final is at Wembley Stadium on May 25.)
Rapinoe will be playing her home games at the Stade Gerland, perhaps best known to U.S. soccer fans as the venue for the U.S. men's 2-1 loss to Iran in World Cup '98. Lyon has long had an interest in women's soccer -- the U.S.' Hope Solo, Lorrie Fair, Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton and Christie Welsh played there in 2005 -- but the club has started investing significant money in recent years to build a European powerhouse.
"The salaries are good here, and the overall interest and commitment on a day-to-day level to have this team be fully professional is awesome," Rapinoe said. "I haven't played in any other European leagues before, but everything so far has been top-notch."
Rapinoe's six-month deal with Lyon means she's expecting to play only the final two months of the 2013 season in the U.S.' new National Women's Soccer League. Last week it was announced that Rapinoe was allocated to the Seattle Reign -- a surprise to many who thought she would land with the Portland Thorns. Rapinoe is a fiercely proud Portland resident who went to college at the University of Portland as well. Now she'll be representing the colors of Portland's archrival.
Was she surprised at the allocation?
"Yeah," she said. "Being in France and not being able to play a full season in the U.S. had something to do with it. I'd suspect if I was going to be there for the whole season that I'd be able to play in my hometown. But it's difficult for a club to take on someone who's only going to be there for two months.
"[Playing for Seattle] will be a little weird for me. Obviously it would be inauthentic for me to say my heart lies in Seattle. It definitely lies in Portland. But I'm a competitor and want to win, and obviously I'll play my heart out for Seattle. Hopefully when I come to Portland they'll cheer me."
Interestingly, Rapinoe and her U.S. teammates have yet to sign contracts with the NWSL, but she said she "definitely" wants to play in the U.S. league this year.
"That was my decision on the timing for six months here [in Lyon]," she said.
But if Rapinoe lights it up in Lyon and has offers from more than one team next year, she might have some leverage to get back to Portland -- or possibly continue playing club ball on two continents moving forward.