Lyon’s Alex Greenwood, ICC show how quickly women’s soccer is growing

CARY, N.C. — Alex Greenwood is confident that her left foot is up to any challenge. Even if the challenge entering Sunday’s International Champions Cup final (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) is fitting in as the newest addition to Lyon’s starting lineup, also known as the greatest assemblage of talent in women’s club soccer.

Born and raised in Liverpool, she is less confident that her French is ready for what’s ahead.

Conversations in her new language are a bit beyond her grasp at the moment, but she already signed up for lessons because she wants to be fluent. And because she hopes to make enough of an impression with the four-time reigning Champions League winners to need to be fluent.

“It’s respect for the club you’re playing for and the country that you’re living in,” Greenwood explained.

Having already traded “me” for “my” a few times in the distinctive lilting Liverpudlian accent, she chose that moment to put the earnestness on hold and poke some fun at herself.

“I obviously speak a different English anyway,” she allowed.

It’s amazing where the game can take a kid from Merseyside these days. And those of us in the United States would do well to pay attention to the charmed life that Greenwood has already led at 25 years old.

Born into the kind of divided loyalty that isn’t uncommon in her hometown, some of her family supporting the red of Liverpool and others the blue of Everton, Greenwood chose red and eventually wore her favorite team’s jersey as a player for Liverpool’s women’s team.

She wore red again last season as the first captain of Manchester United’s first women’s team, which she led to a second-division title and promotion to the top flight in its debut season.

She has played in two World Cups for England, the youngest player on the team that finished third in 2015 and a regular starter on the squad that again reached the semifinals in France last month.

This summer Greenwood signed with the biggest women’s team in the world.

And yet, none of those things were even possible when she was 10 years old in 2004. Liverpool was a part-time women’s team playing outside the top division. Manchester United didn’t have a team at all. The French women’s side was just transitioning from FC Lyon to Olympique Lyon and owner Jean-Michel Aulas’ deep pockets.

Not to mention that England at the time had only ever qualified for one Women’s World Cup.

Soccer’s doors were no longer closed to a girl growing up in Liverpool, but dreaming big still took some imagination.

“Even though it might not have been available, it still was a dream to play for the biggest clubs in the world, to play for me country, to be successful,” Greenwood said. “I was aware but not aware at that age that it wasn’t professional. But it didn’t stop me from believing that I could do it for a career. … I always knew I wanted to play football. There was never any other option.”

She is part of a crossover generation in England and Europe as a whole. She didn’t have to fight for access to the sport, didn’t encounter much hostility when she played with the boys beyond the occasional snide comment from an opponent. And by the time she joined Everton to train with girls when she was nearing 10 years old, she could look at the club’s senior ranks and see women like Fara Williams and Rachel Brown pushing the sport forward.

“I had someone to look up to,” Greenwood said.

Now look how much the world changed around her in a generation.

Certainly new U.S. women’s national team general manager Kate Markgraf’s first priority on the job will be hiring a coach for the senior team. But she’s also in charge of youth development. And the world in which the United States now competes is the one in which Greenwood grew up. Markgraf doesn’t have to copy Europe, but she has to account for it.

Greenwood and her family didn’t pay large sums so that she could train at Everton. She tried out and was good enough — illustrating the meritocratic if also cutthroat access to the sport. When she was better than the other kids her age, she played with older girls and women at Everton. She debuted for England at 20 and was already an established pro when she joined Liverpool at 22.

“I said it to Lyon when they were signing her, as a defender, she’s got one of the best left foots in the world,” said Lucy Bronze, Greenwood’s teammate at Lyon and with the English national team. “She shows that every time she plays. I knew that from the minute I played with her at Everton together, that she had so much quality that she was going to be a top player.

“I think coming to Lyon’s only going to further that development and she’ll continue to grow and become a better player for Lyon and a better player for England.”

That move came about with little notice this summer. Greenwood had already traveled to Norway with Manchester United for preseason. The offer from Lyon meant leaving behind family and her long-time partner, Sheffield United defender Jack O’Connell. It meant leaving behind friends and a historic project at Manchester United that she helped shape almost from inception.

But there is no club in the world that offers a challenge like Lyon.

“When I was a captain at United, it was about being a leader and making sure everyone was OK and making sure everyone knew what we needed to do to get to where we wanted to be,” Greenwood said. “It’s a very different role now because maybe that responsibility isn’t on me as much, to make sure everyone is on time. I can kind of concentrate on my game and learn from the world-class players who are here.

“Obviously, we’ve got big characters at this club who I can learn from. I suppose at Manchester United the players were learning from me a little bit.”

These days there are kids growing up in Liverpool dreaming of careers that look a lot like hers.

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