French star Amandine Henry makes an impact on the NWSL

Earlier this year, jaws dropped around the soccer world when then-26-year-old French national team midfielder Amandine Henry announced she would leave legendary French side Olympique Lyonnais for the Portland Thorns. Still in the prime of her career, Henry is widely considered the best defensive midfielder in the world and has garnered a laundry list of individual and club honors, from the Silver Ball at the 2015 World Cup to three Champions League titles with OL. No other international signing in the four-year history of the NWSL has generated as much hype. But now, three months in, how has she slotted in with the Thorns?

“It’s not how I imagined,” Henry said, with the help of translator Jamie O’Dell. “It’s really more intense,” she said, referring both to the level of athleticism in the NWSL and the league’s competitiveness. “In France, the league is always between three or four teams, but here, all the games are important and the level is very, very high.”

That intensity suits Henry just fine. It’s what attracted her to the US in the first place. “It’s the best league in the world… the Americans are always near the top in international competitions. I wanted to see how they work, with the hope of progressing personally, and also taking something back to the French national team.”

Whatever Henry is learning in the NWSL, it’s clear she’s brought just as much. It’s a relationship that highlights how much both Americans and Europeans have to learn from each other. While Henry marvels at the gritty, determined attitude of her American peers—”they don’t think about effort, they always keep going,” she says—her new team is equally impressed with her skill and smarts.

“You give her the ball and you know she’s going to create something,” Thorns teammate Christine Sinclair said earlier in the season. “She does the simple things well. She always finds that easy pass, moves the ball quickly. Her soccer IQ is off the charts.”

“She’s got class and quality that sometimes can be hard to see,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons explained. “Her brain is so far ahead of the average player on the pitch, and there’s times she’s thinking five, six steps ahead.”

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One moment Parsons cited was during her NWSL debut against Western New York, when Henry received a pass from Allie Long, and immediately turned to thread a perfectly-weighted pass through the Flash back line to Tobin Heath. “She sets up that pass so that Tobin can be on the max sprint in towards goal, first touch… She makes the game faster by thinking so fast.”

From her side, Henry hopes she’s bringing a dash of French sophistication to the comparatively physical American league. “I try to bring more technique, to play more in possession instead of always playing long balls.” It’s a style that Parsons has worked to cultivate in Portland and it is how she feels that she has to play in the NWSL.

“When I was in France, I was pretty physical, pretty athletic,” she said. “But here, basically, I’m more in the middle.” She explained that being surrounded by strong, athletic players has pushed her to rely more on her exceptional skill. “I try to avoid one-on-one duels.”

To an outside observer, there are two remarkable things about this statement: first, that she feels wasn’t already making the best use of her buttery-smooth touch and exceptional passing precision when she played in France. Second, she’s been, since starting with the Thorns, one of their most effective players in one-on-one defensive battles, proving herself strong and skilled enough to mix it up with the league’s best. As Parsons puts it, “she does the horrible stuff, the physical work” as well as the grittiest of her American colleagues.

Recently, Henry’s presence has been perhaps most visible in how it’s impacted teammate Allie Long’s game.

“I think getting Amandine here, who’s a true holding mid,” Long said after a September game against the Dash, “when she’s sitting deeper, I’m allowed to go a little higher… So I think that having her here has enabled me to kind of rotate up.”

Where early in the season, Long and Lindsey Horan held down the central midfield, adding Henry has enabled both of them to push higher more often. Shifting Long, especially, to an attacking role has paid dividends for the Thorns: the USWNT midfielder has notched six goals in the last five games.

If, off the field, the transition to life in the States has been rushed—”I haven’t really had time to get settled,” she says, thanks to a nearly two-month leave of absence for the Olympics—on the field, she seems to fit in seamlessly. Language isn’t a non-factor: she sees an English tutor three times a week, and although she’s learned enough to understand most questions, she admits she sometimes misses finer points during practices. Gestures help, as do a handful of teammates who speak some French, like Horan and Celeste Boureille. But come game time, the barrier mostly falls away on its own. “Football is universal,” she explained.

Management-wise, the NWSL is a new experience. “In France, you’re managed very closely,” she said. “Everything is with the team—you dress the same, you eat together… Here, there’s a lot less preoccupation with what players are doing off the field.”

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Culturally, she’s still getting to know her new home. She’s surprised to see Portlanders out and about on weekday evenings, and the food has taken some adjustment. “I’m not used to eating a lot of the food you can get here. There’s so much Mexican food, which we don’t have in France” (when Excelle asked how she likes Mexican food, she laughed, “pas trop, parce que c’est spicy!”).

One of the bigger question marks, as the season’s end draws near, is how she’ll spend the NWSL’s six-month offseason. That long break is a challenge for all NWSL players in different ways; for a French international, the timing is especially frustrating, since the end of NWSL play overlaps with the start of the season in the European leagues. “I’m going to rest and go see my family, and in January, [when the transfer windows reopen], maybe play for a club in France or elsewhere in Europe.”

She didn’t specify which clubs might be interested, although OL apparently isn’t among them (after we spoke, French outlets reported PSG might be in the mix).

Does Henry’s move signal more top European players might take interest in the NWSL? She said she wouldn’t be surprised. “It’s really an attractive league,” she said. “And you have to experience new things in your career to progress… Plus, I want to give people a good impression of French players.”

If anything, she might have set the bar too high.

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