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UEFA Women’s Champions League: Pros, cons of saying goodbye to Lyon (Part 2 of 2)

Nov 17, 2013, 11:15 PM EST

lyon Getty Images

It’s the stuff Malcolm Gladwell writes books about: tournament favorite Lyon’s early exit from UEFA Women’s Champions League. Or rather, Gladwell would write a book why we perceived OL to be the Goliath. Then he’d go on The Daily Show and explain why out-of-control bias overlooked the fact Turbine Potsdam should have been favorites all long. Because if there’s one thing John Stewart’s always wanted on the show, it’s a hard-hitting segment on the future of Champions League.

Five years of soccer tells us otherwise. Lyon’s dominance isn’t a psychological phenomenon. They were the real deal. Four straight finals with demolition runs to the last two left little doubt. Lyon (pictured, above, ahead of last year’s final) were the world’s best, making this week’s Round of 16 ouster all the more confusing. While it wasn’t unfathomable that a team like Turbine could oust Lyon, a quarterfinal without the acknowledged best team in the world feels incomplete, like an unsolved crime. We need method, we need motive, but we also need to know how to move forward. We need closure.

So let’s break out the whiteboard and deploy the most reliable tool in the anal retentive nerd arsenal: The pro-con list. Let’s go through the good, sift through the bad, and let’s do so in writing. Because anything this important needs 1,800 superfluous words.

Ultimately, let’s try to figure out if a Women’s Champions League without Olympique Lyonnais is a good thing, or a bad thing:

PROS

Teams are either catching up or figuring it out – Lyon didn’t just win back-to-back titles. In 2011-12, they rolled, outscoring their opponents 37-5 in route to their second straight Champions League. Before losing last year’s final 1-0, they had outscored their opposition 40-2, leaving people who called their loss in London with plenty of evidence in support. What are you more inclined to believe: 77-7 over 17 games, or 1-0 in a final?

The way Turbine replicated Wolfsburg’s achievement makes it hard to say the Lyon era’s done. At least, it’s hard to be conclusive about it. After all, it took a hand ball and the away goals rules to leave us in this state.

There is, however, an aura of vulnerability that didn’t exist seven months ago. As Turbine showed, Lyon can be outworked, pushed around a little, and yes, beaten. Kryptonite’s been found.

For some, the competition becomes more legitimate – For years, the complaint about Lyon’s league was that there was no competition, and with Paris Saint-Germain still building their project, it remains a one-team race (even if spots two through four have become so much more interesting). England faced similar complaints about Arsenal’s dominance until Liverpool swiped their title this year.

source: Getty Images

Lyon’s French midfielder Louisa Necib (R) vies with Wolfsburg’s German midfielder Anna Blasse (L) during last year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Erroneously, people started assuming the same about Champions League. Why watch if you know Lyon’s going to win? Perhaps for the competition’s other 31 teams, though people looking for excuses not to watch will always find something. For them, Lyon’s loss won’t be convincing.

For others, a new, more competitive Champions League will be seen as a more legitimate competition. Whether that’s the right conclusion is almost irrelevant. At least some fans be more likely to follow, which leads us to …

It may be the only way to grow – Whatever it takes to get more people interested in Champions League, right? Those that came for Lyon’s dominance – the majesty of watching the best club team ever (who played some damn good soccer) – aren’t leaving now. But those that were over Lyon and stayed away? They may be more likely to tune in. That Swedish or English soccer fan that didn’t want to look beyond their league before might tune-in mid-week to see if Arsenal, Birmingham City, or Tyresö will claim the crown.

This competition’s still taking baby steps, no matter how quickly some teams went to speed up the clock. Perhaps this phase of the competition’s growth could use the variety. Then, when a new group of people come on board, it might be time for another Lyon to capture other imaginations.

People who hate big spenders: “Throw your pennies in the air/If you’re a true hater”In the men’s world, Lyon’s a huge club. That they’re one of the few from that money-laden realm to strive for excellence on the women’s side put them at a huge advantage. OL’s roster is full of high-priced talents thanks to their cherry picking the rest of France’s talent and their increased forays into the global market (Lotta Schelin, Lara Dickemann, Saki Kumagai, Megan Rapinoe among their foreign stars).

That they went out at the boots of a German team, albeit one that has players from nine different countries, will have symbolic value. While the Frauen Bundesliga brand doesn’t carry the quite same financial connotations as its male counterpart, some will still see the German club as doing it things the “right” way while Lyon’s broken out the check book.

CONS

Competition loses a focal point – Diehards like more diversity in their story lines, but favorites are a great way to draw in casuals. It was that way with the Lakers and Celtics in the 1908s. It was that way with the Yankees (at various points in baseball’s history), and with a competition that’s still well short of its stride, it was that way with Lyonnais. It’s always difficult to replace a headline act.

Another team could prove their equal, but that’s probably not going to happen. It took more than one result for periodic viewers to remember Lyon. We’ll need a few more headlines from one club before was see a line of succession.

Odds are the days of hegemony are probably over. People may have to come for the soccer, not the dominance.

Lyon’s gone all France-y, really shouldn’t be losing these games – Since 2011, the French national team has been the most disappointing side in international soccer, their combination of skill, compelling talents, and attractive play unable to generate a true threat at the last three major tournaments. From dark horses at World Cup 2011 to favorites at Euro 2013, Les Bleues have been repeat offenders in the disappointment department, their results falling short of their potential.

All during that run, France’s contributors have been predominantly Lyon players, yet those stars had managed to contain their on-field disappointments to the international realm. Not so anymore. Not only have Lyon lost the last two Champions Leagues from  a favorite’s position, they’ve used their national team’s trademarked “how did they let that happen?!?” approach. Leaving few explanations for their failure, Lyon’s gone all France-y on us.

source: Getty Images

Lotta Schelin, pictured here playing for Sweden, has 33 goals in 30 games in 2013 for club and country. Despite leading Euro 2013 scoring, Schelin’s FIFA World Player of the Year candidacy will likely be hurt by Lyon’s early Champions League exit. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Lotta Schelin will be under-appreciated – Schelin is the best player in the world. Others’ mileage may vary (that’s what comment sections are for), but for me, the debate isn’t even that compelling right now. While the distance between her and the next level isn’t big, a gap exists. There’s a precision Schelin brings to the striker position that’s unparalleled in the world game. Nobody can match it: not Abby Wambach; not Christine Sinclair; not Alex Morgan.

Unfortunately, she’s becoming a victim of her own success, and that victimization is going to cost her FIFA World Player of the Year. Like Lionel Messi in years’ past, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Cristiano Ronaldo, people are starting to complain that she doesn’t score in big games, and while that’s true (she didn’t score against Potsdam, in Sweden’s Euro 2013 eliminator, or in any of the Champions League finals), the reason is obvious. You give talented, well-organized teams one thing to do — like stop one player — they’ll usually find a way. As we saw in the buildup to this week’s Portugal-Sweden playoff, we usually greatly exaggerate the potential effect stars can have on a match.

Go ahead and bring up examples of Pele, Maradona, and the new Messi, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, or almost any other player in the history of the world’s game can be stopped. As can Messi. It’s up to their teammates to make the opposition pay.

I use mens’ players with the hopes of making the point as accessible as possible. No matter how many times world soccer’s provided evidence to undermine the idea that everybody can be Maradona, people are still unconvinced. It’s not enough to be a superstar. Every player needs to be a Super, Mega Star or they’re torn down.

Maybe Lotta Schelin isn’t a Super, Mega Star, but she’s still the best player in the world. If Abby Wambach or Nadine Angerer win FIFA Player of the Year simply because Schelin didn’t go full Michelle Akers on the world, that’s just wrong. But it would also be par for the course for that award.

The draw methodology is pretty seriously messed up – On this, we can all agree. There’s no way Lyon should be facing Turbine Potsdam this early in the competition. There’s no way Paris Saint-Germain and Tyresö should have met in the round of 32, either. And Wolfsburg shouldn’t have forced to eliminate Malmö this early. We don’t need Champions League final-caliber matchups in November.

The system needs to be changed. Right now, 16 of the competition’s 32 teams get seeded, drawn out of one bag against teams from the other – a process that changes come the Round of 16. In the interest of having the best matchups come during the later, more marketable times of the tournament, the “seeded” teams need to be protected deeper into the tournament.

A group stage is out of the question. There’s not enough money in this competition to support that right now, leaving two options (which, admittedly, me and three Twitter friends thought up):

  • Tennis/NCAA-style seeding and bracket, where the top X teams get seeds. Instead of a redraw at the end of each round, the bracket remains constant from the beginning. Or,
  • You reseed after each round until a certain point in the tournament; say, the semifinals. At the Round of 32, you have 16 seeds. At the Round of 16, you have eight. You do something to keep Lyon and Turbine from meeting so soon.

There is another problem, though, and that’s the seeding itself. With the landscape of women’s soccer in flux (thanks to the money coming into the game), it’s difficult for any rating system to stabilize. UEFA coefficients are much more effective on the men’s side than the women’s. You still have a situation where a team like Glasgow City is seeded while Tyresö is not.

Until that reaches the type of equilibrium we see on the men’s side, all seedings are going to be flawed.

  1. tracylordandtaylor - Nov 17, 2013 at 11:30 PM

    Tyreso and PSG met in the Round of 32, not the Round of 16. Of course, this further strengthens your point about the absurdity of the draw. I hope that we don’t see a QF draw matching WOB/Potsdam/TFF, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did.

    • Richard Farley - Nov 17, 2013 at 11:37 PM

      Was that unclear? Okay. I’ll make sure to correct that. And yeah … those two meeting that early (and Tyresö not being seeded) was blürg.

    • Richard Farley - Nov 17, 2013 at 11:38 PM

      Ah! That was a mistake in editing. I remember separating out the Wolfsburg/Malmö part, but obviously I never changed the number back. Thanks for the help!

  2. tracylordandtaylor - Nov 17, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    You’re welcome. Thanks for covering the women’s game. There are lots of compelling stories that have emerged from this year’s Champions League: Rapinoe’s banishment to the reserves, Schelin’s cold streak, Tyreso’s American mercenaries (who may be called home by their federation overlord, well, except for Harris who, inexplicably, seems to be in the doghouse), and, of course, questionable refereeing. I love it!

  3. lunasceiling - Nov 18, 2013 at 12:03 AM

    I agree that Lotta Schelin is the best striker in the world (and this from someone whose home club includes Sinclair and Morgan…),. I don’t necessarily agree that she’s the best player. Do you really think her overall skillset exceeds Tobin Heath’s? I don’t…

    • Richard Farley - Nov 18, 2013 at 12:05 AM

      I think Tobin’s certainly more skilled, definitely, but I guess I only see that as part of what makes somebody the best player. I mean, Abby’s one of the least skilled elite players in women’s soccer history, but she won the award last year (a decision with which I agreed, at the time).

      • lunasceiling - Nov 18, 2013 at 12:34 AM

        That’ certainly a good point, Richard. And even putting aside my rose (city) colored glasses, I’m not ready to call Heath the best player in women’s footy. In fact, I don’ t know that I can call anyone that, since it all gets a bit apples ‘n oranges at the top level (even when you exclude keepers). How do you really compare a Lotta Schelin to a Tobin Heath? It’s a bit like comparing Messi to Ozil…

        In any case, thanks so much for these wonderful articles. Even in full Timbers anxiety mode (and yes, I have tickets to next Sunday’s match!), I’m simply delighted to see some good, deep analysis of the women’s game.

  4. norcen99 - Nov 18, 2013 at 1:32 AM

    Lotta Schelin the best striker in the world? Ridiculous. Her stats are buffed by playing for the big fish in a tiny pond. She has not shown that level in the WWC or Olympics. This Euro 2013 was her best International showing. She is a good striker but not the best.

    I think you should take a look to this in depth analysis of Women’s Pro Soccer strikers world wide by Ken Suzuki. It is very well done.

    http://www.womenssoccerunited.com/profiles/blogs/let-s-do-mathematics

    • Richard Farley - Nov 18, 2013 at 2:11 AM

      Interesting link. I don’t want to speak negatively about somebody who clearly put a lot of work into that (because it achieves a better understanding than just the raw numbers), but I think with a little search you’ll find some really interesting (and more complex) ways people are translating goal totals from league-to-league, methods that build on the advanced work done in other sports to neutralize in a more sophisticated way some of the factors the person talked about in the linked post.

      • norcen99 - Nov 18, 2013 at 7:30 PM

        Hmm, I have been researching the topic for a few years and not seen those other articles. A quick google search has not found that for me, at least not for the Women’s game. Would you care to share some links?

        I know that any normalizing factor can skew data and end up with a different result. There can always be discussions on what the normalization factors should be. At least this person recognizes the problem and attempts to work around it in a clearly defined way and invites debate. I appreciate the work her put in.

        Either way I stand by my comment, no way is Schelin the best forward in the world. Club cannot be the only factor (it should be one yes). And Lyon makes Schelin, she has skills but the big games have eluded her, hell even the small games have internationally. Top 10 forward yes. I would take Christine Sinclair, Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Bev Goebel over her. Any of those players on Lyon score the same number of goals.

      • norcen99 - Nov 18, 2013 at 7:33 PM

        Please note I am not saying that any of those players should win the FIFA POTY this year or arguing that Schelin shouldn’t win it. She had a great club season and a good UWCL too. Big club and big showing in the major tournament of the year should win the award, so I don’t disagree if the Ballon d’Or is what you are specifically talking about.

        It is only as best striker in the world that I disagree with. I mean the best striker could have not had the best year, and it is the POTY award. Just like Marta is the most skilled player or most amazing player, but unless she has the best year she shouldn’t win the POTY.

  5. taylor100l - Nov 18, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    m

    • taylor100l - Nov 18, 2013 at 6:12 PM

      Weird. I’m able to post a random “m” but I’m having difficulty posting a comment more than one letter.

      • taylor100l - Nov 18, 2013 at 6:17 PM

        Let’s try this again. If I had a vote Schelin would be my votes. Hands down. But given the UEFA Women’s POY voting where she received a measly two votes, I’ll assume she won’t even get a top 3 spot. I certainly don’t fault her for scoring in the recent big matches. But I can see how she’ll be marginalized by the lack of club and country’s team success. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Sweden and Lyon both favored in the EURO and CL didn’t live up to expectations and exited the tourney earlier than anticipated. The team’s underwhelming performance was then extended to Schelin. And in all sports, MVPs or POYs get evaluated by not only individual brilliance but the success of its teams.

      • Richard Farley - Nov 18, 2013 at 7:44 PM

        Maybe you’re onto a new art form, here? I was very intrigued :)

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