Despite unforeseen transit delays for fans, a torrential downpour moments before kickoff and a crowded local sports schedule, French football held its own and then some on Saturday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., with Olympique Lyonnaise coming from behind in the final 13 minutes to tie upstart Montpellier at 2, and then prevailing 4-2 in penalty kicks to take the French Super Cup and officially start the French soccer season, albeit just outside the bright lights of New York.
"New York is a magical place, and we were more motivated to play in New York and for a Cup final," Said Lyon forward Jimmy Briand, who scored the tying goal in the 77th minute and also converted the decisive penalty kick to give Lyon the title.
While some of the continent’s largest clubs have made North America their home this month, most of the matches have not lived up to the lively anticipation expected in the suddenly soccer crazy countries of the United States and Canada. Chelsea, AS Roma, Paris Saint-Germaine, AC Milan and others have used the “friendlies” more as good will brand building and preseason training matches than all-out competition. However, Montpellier and Lyon had the Cup on the line, and the result was a lively and action-packed match on Saturday full of goal-scoring, hard contact, yellow and red cards, penalty kicks, brilliant goalkeeping and ultimately a hard-fought title for Lyon.
While the late-arriving crowd eventually numbered just over 15,000, the match was also televised in prime time across France and in almost 200 nations around the world, all of whom saw an entertaining and action-packed version of soccer that the French Federation is looking to market to the larger audiences who have taken to the Barclays Premier League, Serie A and La Liga more and more in recent years.
As a first test for an American audience, these two clubs scored very high marks.
“It was very exciting to watch, and to learn even more about French soccer today was certainly a pleasure,” said commentator and former American soccer star Kobi Jones, who called the match for Universal Sports. “These two clubs showed how strong French soccer is—it probably won them a great deal of fans who were not as aware before today.”
John Chukwidi Utaka scored in the 27th minute to give Montpellier, the defending Ligue 1 champion, the first score of the day. Bafetimbi Gomis tied it for Lyon in the 44th with the clubs leaving the pitch at 1-1 at the half. Montpellier’s Emmanuel Herrera converted a penalty kick in the 56thminute to give them a 2-1 advantage before Briand’s score knotted the game and the two clubs headed to penalty kicks, despite a series of chances on both ends to break the deadlock in the closing minutes.
Briand, Aly Cissokho, Bakary Kone and Yassine Benzia scored on the penalty kicks for Lyon. Souleymane Camara and Mapou Yangambiwa converted for Montpellier, with Lyon keeper Hugo Loris, the French National keeper, coming up with two key stops to help secure the win.
The match for French soccer supremacy was played in an English-speaking country for the first time, after four previous stops in French-speaking nations, including Canada. The move to New York was also a strong first step to expose French soccer in America and was the pinnacle of trips for both Lyon and Montpellier, who also played friendlies against MLS clubs earlier in the week in Montreal and Kansas City. Paris Saint-Germaine is also on a tour in the United States, playing a series of friendlies as well.
“I think this was a solid first step for the French Federation to grow their brand with the American fan base and with American companies looking to expand even more into soccer,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing Services, the Comcast-owned company that helped with the tour and the French Cup. “The U.S. is becoming more and more soccer savvy, because of the efforts of MLS and the continued marketing prowess of foreign clubs, and it makes great sense for the French to be in the mix as well. Today was a great example of how strong French soccer is, and it played out not just before a crowd in New York but before a global audience online and on TV. It was a great day for their league and for the sport.”
The two clubs will return to France to continue training for league play, which opens in a few weeks. However, Saturday’s match probably left casual fans wanting to know more about Ligue 1 and its clubs, who served up a match worthy of the trophy it was played for. If that is indeed the case, mission accomplished for the marketing of French soccer, with more to come.