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Soccer

Tim Weah Is Still Here

Lille's US midfielder Timothy Weah celebrates after scoring a goal during the French L1 football match between Dijon FCO (DFCO) and Lille (LOSC), at the Gaston Gerard Stadium in Dijon, central France, on December 16, 2020.
Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

Remember Tim Weah? Just a couple years ago he was arguably the USMNT’s hottest new prospect, the one who seemed most likely to follow Christian Pulisic’s footsteps to true stardom. Like many a promising youngster coming through the ranks of a superclub—in his case, Paris Saint-Germain—Weah has struggled to find his footing since first emerging onto the scene. Thankfully, after his first great week coming off a nightmare year, Weah is back and healthy and ready to prove that his talent and potential haven’t abandoned him, even if the hype has.

Though Weah is the scion of soccer royalty, his own trajectory in the game hasn’t exactly been ordained. A presence-announcing 2018 as a rotation forward at PSG became an ultimately disappointing half-season loan to Celtic in 2019, which became a tantalizing transfer to Lille in the summer of 2019. With a new forever home and the opportunity to snatch a starting role for one of the most exciting young teams in France, Weah at last had an open track ahead of him to see how far and fast he could go.

After the second match of his debut season, Weah suffered a major injury. He wouldn’t play again for another six months. In his first match back after recovering from that injury, he tore his hamstring and would not appear in another match for the rest of the season.

The sports world moves fast, and today’s foundational wonderkid signing can become tomorrow’s afterthought. Lille thrived in Weah’s absence last season, finishing fourth in Ligue 1 on the strength of stellar performances from fellow young, talented forwards like Victor Osimhen, Jonathan Ikoné, and Jonathan Bamba. Osimhen’s play earned him a big move to Napoli this summer, but coming into this season Weah still found himself behind not two but three Jonathans (Ikoné and Bamba, plus new addition Jonathan David), and also Luiz Araújo, Burak Yilmaz, and Yusuf Yazici. Coming into December, Weah had only gotten onto the field in eight of Lille’s 16 matches, all appearances as a substitute, not once seeing more than 15 minutes on the pitch. In just two years he’d gone from being feted as the next Pulisic to looking dangerously close to being the next Julian Green.

Thankfully, young athletes’ career development is rarely linear, and being labeled a “flop” has no bearing whatsoever on a player’s actual ability. And judging from the trajectory of his minutes of late, Weah hasn’t let the past year’s setbacks discourage him from trying to win himself a place in the currently Ligue 1-leading team. In December, Weah has appeared in all five of Lille’s matches in domestic and Europa League play. Following an off-the-bench assist in the latter competition at the start of the month, Weah got his first start of the season on December 10, against his old club Celtic. Back at Parkhead, he scored the first goal of his Lille career:

On Wednesday, Weah came off the bench and scored an even more impressive volley to open his Ligue 1 account at the club:

The strike is a real beauty, but even more compelling to me is what comes after. You can see in Weah’s explosive celebration how much it means to him, to once again be on the scoresheet at the club he had to imagine he’d become a star at during the brighter days of 2019. You can also see, in the dog pile his teammates form over him, just how ecstatic Weah’s teammates are that he is succeeding. Players know talent, know hard work, know how much it hurts to see a dream deferred and how much determination and bravery it takes to keep trying to realize it.

It’s still early in his career rehabilitation, but after the exploits of the past couple weeks, it does appear that Weah has fought for and won a place in Lille’s rotation. His ceiling as a player probably isn’t as high as it first seemed, not when he’s proven fairly limited when he isn’t granted open spaces to fly into. At only 20 years old, he still has plenty of time to grow, of course, and there absolutely still is a very good player inside there if things break right.

As American soccer fans at the dawn of an unprecedented age, everything about rooting for our compatriots abroad feels exciting and new. In just a few years the Americans-in-Europe contingent has gone from a smattering of commendably mediocre journeymen and academy teens who were long shots to pan out, to having Pulisic, to having several guys playing major roles at huge clubs every single Champions League match day.

The experience has been thrilling and instructive. Everyone’s journey has something to teach. Pulisic’s teaches us what a legitimate star on the come-up looks like. Green’s teaches us that not every big-club prospect is inevitably destined for greatness, and this fact can become evident extremely quickly. Weah’s lesson for us is something in between, that a big-club prospect’s talent can be real but maybe not stratospheric, that his career arc can start high, fall down, but then point right back up later, and that it’s worth keeping all this in mind when it comes time to crown a new wonderteen or to write an old one off.

For his part, Weah seems above the need for such lessons. The immediate demands and pressures and pleasures of competing take precedence. He is once again fit and playing, and is doing so with confidence and joy and also defiance. The people that share the field and locker room with him are seeing this, and it is making them happy. We are seeing this, and it’s making us happy. There’s surely more to come, but there’s plenty right now, too.