ALBUFEIRA, Portugal (March 7, 2005) - As the U.S. Women’s National Team prepares to open the 2005 Algarve Cup against France on Wednesday, March 9 (4:15 p.m. local / 11:15 a.m. ET on ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker presented by Philips Electronics), four U.S. players had a much shorter trip to southern Portugal than their teammates. With the absence of a top-flight professional league in the United States, midfielders Aly Wagner and Lorrie Fair, goalkeeper Hope Solo, and forward Christie Welsh have traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to play for Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, France. In a special feature for ussoccer.com, the quartet talked about their European experience.
March 7, 2005
When Aly Wagner rolls out of bed at 10 a.m. on a cold morning in Lyon, France, she pushes the button on her coffee maker, pulls on some warm clothes and walks two blocks to the bakery where she buys a fresh baguette for less than one Euro. She’ll return to the hotel suites that house the four U.S. Women’s National Team players currently plying their trade for Olympique Lyonnais in the French First Division and enjoy a leisurely breakfast of egg whites, bell peppers, broccoli, lemon pepper and smoked turkey.
“My baguette goes really well with the breakfast bowl,” said Wagner.
Life is good in Lyon.
The rest of the afternoon could include trips to museums, American movies or exploration of the third largest city in France. The players have visited the spectacular Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvier, which sits atop a hill overlooking the city and is elaborately decorated with thousands of tiny mosaic tiles depicting historical religious images and stories.
Since all of their French teammates have jobs, training is at 6:30 p.m. every night. The players return home around 9 p.m. and have adjusted to the European custom of late dinners, usually not hitting the sack until well after midnight, giving them plenty of time to talk to their loved ones back in the States.
“I don’t sleep much anyway, so this lifestyle suits me,” said Fair. “I go to the market everyday to get fresh food and walking 20-30 minutes seems like nothing. In the U.S., that would never happen. I would get in the car and drive. Because we walk or take the subway most places, things just move slower and you are able to explore, enjoy your surroundings more and take in everything.”
Lyon is much like many large European cities, a charming mix of the new and old, with an excellent subway system and endless exquisite culinary options. The players say that even though it’s a big city, it has a small town feel, with friendly folks who are proud and passionate about their culture, heritage and food. Wagner has befriended the owner of a local café, who insists on feeding her different kinds of crepes and pastries, while sharing her life story.
Two rivers -- the Rhône and Saône -- bisect the city. On the East side of the Rhone sits the stadium for Olympic Lyonnais, and on the street leading to the stadium, the players’ hotel. On the days of home games for the league-leading Olympique Lyonnais men's team, opposing fans sporting their side’s colors march down the street (escorted by a phalanx of police) chanting for their club and against the home team. The street is lined with cafés and shops, a subway stop is right around the corner and the cobblestone sidewalks are constantly alive with foot traffic.
Welcome to Europe.
“I like the mindset of the European lifestyle,” said Solo, who played last year for a club in Goteborg, Sweden. “The shops are closed early and people are home earlier. Family is really emphasized. It’s just not as high-paced as in the States and I think I’ve adjusted well.”
The players have also adjusted well to the soccer, although all admit that there are distinct differences from the American game.
“The players are crafty and technical, but the pace is slower in many ways,” said Welsh, who scored in her second game with the club. “When we are at training the coaches are constantly telling us to slow down. We play a lot in practices, so that is great. We don’t do a lot of drills.”
The players list few drawbacks to their stay in Lyon, with the current freezing cold, cigarette smoke and the language barrier the consensus negatives.
“It’s difficult to communicate,” said Solo, who faces the unique problem of trying to direct her back line. “It’s almost impossible. I was told not to speak English at all because it’s too confusing. The word “away” sounds like je, which is “I” in French so when I want the defense to clear it, it sounds like I’m calling for the ball. That is not a good situation, so it’s better not to say anything.”
The players are all taking French lessons, with 2003 Women’s World Cup Team player Danielle Slaton, who is also playing with Lyon, proving to be the quickest study.
“This lady sits down in a room and just starts speaking French,” said Wagner. “We have no idea what she’s saying. We start laughing and she “shushes” us and gives us the glare. It’s serious stuff, but we are all picking up enough to get by.”
To a player, the Americans admit that the cold has been unexpected, uncomfortable and frustrating, with numerous matches being cancelled due to snow. Wagner dresses for training in fleece-lined spandex tights under sweatpants. She wears thin socks under soccer socks and sometimes puts heating pads inside her shoes and gloves. She wears three of four layers of shirts, a sweatshirt, a windbreaker and a jacket. And don’t forget the hat.
“I look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man,” said Wagner.
One of the wonderful benefits of the central location of Lyon has been the ability to travel. The players have taken numerous side trips, including excursions to Paris, Grenoble near the French Alps, the Champagne region (you can guess what their main export is) and they went wine-tasting in the Beaujolais region. There are even plans for a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, which is just a short train ride away.
“It was comforting knowing that all the players were going (to France),” said Welsh, who played last year in Sweden with Karslund. “I am not sure I would have done it alone.”
In short, it’s an ideal situation for twenty-something American women on an extended European soccer vacation, one on which they are getting paid to play the game they love.
“I just enjoy experiencing different cultures,” said Solo, who also says the time in France has brought the Americans closer. “I love not having a car. It’s something I never thought I could deal with, but we just hop on the subway or walk to training. I know when I look back years from now I’ll be happy that I had these experiences.”
While the players admit that they have experienced some anti-American sentiment, getting cursed out on the subway by a man of Middle-Eastern decent, and being told to “go back to America” by an old French man on the city streets, overall they have been treated extremely well by the people and the club.
“I definitely didn’t think I would ever be playing in Europe, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Wagner. “I really thought that after the Olympics I would spend some time at home, but the opportunity arose and I’m grateful for the experience. The soccer is different, but good in that the players are more technically refined than Americans. Athletically, there are some very fast players, and they have good soccer savvy but are not as organized in a team fashion. I’ve enjoyed playing there. I feel it has made me pretty sharp and helped my first touch and my finishing”
One other benefit is free tickets to watch the OL men’s team, which currently sits atop the French League 1 and has made a deep run into the Champions League. While the cold has precluded them from too many evenings sitting in the stands, the players have still benefited from some of the best role models in the world.
“Juninho is my new inspiration for free-kicks,” said Wagner, referring to OL’s Brazilian midfielder.
As the players prepare to face France, which includes one of their teammates from Olympique Lyonnais and their opponents from league play, Wagner says the experience has given her a level of confidence heading into the first match of the tournament.
“I would definitely say I am more prepared mentally going into the game,” said Wagner. “I’m excited for the match. I know their style, how they train and I feel confident I know what to expect. Having said that, hopefully I can use that knowledge to find success against them. I will have to take a lot of abuse back in Lyon if we don’t come away with a victory. Luckily, I don’t understand much French."