Lille is the hottest team in France, and one of its hottest players is 20-year-old American Tim Weah.
For the second time a less than week, Weah scored an opportunistic goal on a volley to clinch the Ligue 1 leader's 2-0 win at last-place Dijon on Thursday and keep Les Dogues in first place ahead of their top-of-the-table clash with defending champion Paris St. Germain on Sunday.
The win came amid reports that majority owner Gerard Lopez is selling Lille due to the club's financial crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the precarious state of French soccer. (Weah appeared on the cover of Thursday's L'Equipe with the headline "Lille: Its first-place is not for sale.")
Weah took advantage of a mistake by Dijon defender Jonathan Panzo, who mishandled a throw-in, and took the ball out of the air with one touch, volleying it into the goal from outside the penalty area on his touch second touch to clinch the win in stoppage time.
Weah's teammates swarmed him after the goal, his first in Ligue 1 since he scored on the opening day of the 2018-19 season for Paris St. Germain. He missed almost all of last season, his first at Lille after a $10 million transfer from PSG, with a series of hamstring injuries that required surgery, and until recently he rarely earned more than a few minutes off the bench.
The popular Weah, who returned to the U.S.national team for the first time under Gregg Berhalter in November (photo), tried to downplay the reception he received from his teammates after his goal.
"The game was only 1-0 and close," he said, "so we were relieved. If someone else scored, the joy for him would have been the same."
Six days earlier, Weah blasted an errant clearance into the goal in Lille's 3-2 loss to Celtic in the Europa League. It was his first start of the season, coming in the final game of group play. Lille had already qualified for the round 32, where it faces Ajax in February.
But Weah's improved play, which included a key assist in the 2-1 comeback win at Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Dec. 3, has not gone unnoticed with Lille coach Christophe Galtier.
"He struggled last season and didn't get much playing time," the Lille coach said. "He's been working hard and is respectful of our lineup decisions. He's putting a lot of energy into his work in training and it shows. He's getting up to full speed."
Les Dogues have one of the talented teams in France with seven players valued at more than $20 million.
Galtier has plenty other attacking options besides Weah. They include Canadian Jonathan David and a pair of Turks, Yusuf Yazici and Burak Yilmaz, up front and Jonathan Ikone, Jonathan Bamba, Luiz Araujo and Isaac Lihadji on the wings. Weah has mostly been used on the wing in Galtier's 4-4-2 formation, coming on for Ikone, but he might start seeing time at one of the forward positions.
Lille owes creditors, including American investment firms Elliott Management and JP Morgan, upwards of $200 million. The DNCG, French pro soccer's auditing board, granted Lille a license for the 2020-21 season after Lopez personally guaranteed the club's debt. He hoped to finance the repayment of the club's loans with the sale of players, but the European transfer market was weakened in the aftermath of the pandemic. The sale of Nigerian Victor Osimhen to Napoli and Brazilian defender Gabriel to Arsenal brought in more than $100 million, but Lille's situation remained precarious.
The final straw was the recent collapse of the new broadcast deal between Ligue 1 and Spanish firm Mediapro that could cost French clubs more than $2 billion collectively over the next four seasons. Telefoot, the channel Mediapro created to air French soccer, is expected to go off the air in January, only five months after it started broadcasting.
Without the anticipated TV revenues, Lille will likely look to try to unload some of its young stars during the January transfer window. That could clear the way for even more playing time for Weah, the son of former Ballon d'Or winner George Weah.
Sunday's game between Lille and PSG at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy has special meaning for the Weahs. George Weah starred at Paris St. Germain for three seasons (1992-95), and Tim was born in Brooklyn and lived in Queens before joining PSG when he was 14.
Weah was first exposed to soccer at Rosedale Soccer Club, founded in 1999 by Michael Duncan, his uncle and father of Kyle Duncan, the New York Red Bulls defender who debuted for the USA in the 6-0 win over El Salvador. Weah also played for BW Gottschee and the Red Bulls in the Development Academy.
Weah debuted for PSG in 2018 when he was only 18 but couldn't find playing time after German Thomas Tuchel took over as head coach and was loaned out to Celtic. A strong U-20 World Cup with the USA in 2019 landed him at Lille, known for developing young talent.
George Weah was elected president of Liberia in 2018, so he has not been able to follow Tim's career in France closely.
Asked after the win over Dijon whether he has talked with his father, busy recently with national referendums, about Sunday's game against PSG, Tim responded, "Not at all. My father doesn't even know we are playing Paris on Sunday."
Top photo: Tim Weah (right) in action against Panama. Credit: GEPA/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire