Much has changed for Timothy Weah since he last played on American soil.
The date was Oct. 16, 2018, and the United States men’s national team had just tied Peru 1-1. His 90-plus-minute stint came at a moment when the U.S. was transitioning to a new generation of players. Back then, Weah was a raw prospect, full of hope and potential.
In the ensuing years, the Brooklyn-born Weah has experienced a career’s worth of ups and downs. There were league titles with Paris Saint-Germain and Celtic, although he admits he didn’t feel completely part of those teams due to a lack of playing time. That was followed by a lost inaugural season with Lille in which he sustained a trio of hamstring injuries, and considered quitting the game.
Now Weah has come out the other side. The just-completed campaign saw him as part of another league title, as Lille held off PSG’s late charge to finish atop Ligue 1. Weah could have done without the late drama, as his side dropped points down the stretch, making the race tighter than it otherwise might have been. But in the end, Lille was able to prevail over PSG, the former club of both Weah and his father, George, a one-time Ballon d’Or winner with AC Milan, who is now the president of Liberia.
“It was a much sweeter fight,” the younger Weah told ESPN about this league title compared to his previous triumphs. “PSG was close to us, and it was a battle. But it was a beautiful story.”
Even more magnificent for Weah is the transition he has made from prospect to solid contributor. His five goals in 37 appearances speak to his consistent presence in the Lille lineup, even as he was asked to play right wing-back at times. But even those numbers don’t quite do him justice. Observers in France noted a more focused player who makes better decisions on the field.
“A lot has changed for me,” he said. “I feel much more confident now going into a game than I’ve ever felt before. I just feel like I’m important to the club now, and important to the national team, so you know it’s a good feeling and hopefully I can continue making the coaching staff on both sides [of the Atlantic] proud.”
That sentiment is echoed by U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter. He has watched Weah’s progression the past 10 months, and the player’s growth is clear. Weah was in danger of being forgotten, another cautionary tale of a young American player, hyped up at youth level who faded out. Now he’s the attacker who came in from the cold. There might be players like Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna who are in front of him, but he’s placed himself in a position where he can pounce in case of injury or loss of form. And Weah has improved in areas where one might not initially expect.
“There’s structure in his game now that I haven’t noticed before,” Berhalter said during a recent Zoom call with reporters. “Particularly on the defensive end, his team is very, very structured, very well-drilled. He understands how to press. He understands how to prevent certain passes from happening and then build pressure at the appropriate time. That’s been really, really good for me to see from him.”
When Weah thinks about the past two years, there isn’t enough Dramamine in the world to mitigate the peaks and valleys he endured. He missed six months with a hamstring injury at the start of the 2019-20 season, only for the muscle to give way again when he made his comeback in February of last year. He also alluded to another setback after that.
“It was three times, you know?” he said about the series of injuries. “Working through that mentally, not being there to try to play the sport I love, just watching a lot of other guys go by and not getting the chance to be on the field with them was hard. I think any footballer, it takes a toll on you after a while.”
But in some respects, Weah knows how lucky he was. In France and elsewhere, people suffered from the pandemic to a much greater degree than he did. So it’s with mixed emotions when he thinks about how it affected him. When Ligue 1 shut down for good in late April 2020, it was a hammer blow for Lille. Les Dogues missed out on qualification to the Champions League by a single point to Stade Rennes. But for Weah, the break bought him more of a commodity that is in short supply during the league season.
“I had a lot of time to focus on myself and focus on getting my body right, getting my leg healed and just tapping into a new me and getting better,” he said. “That’s what the pandemic helped me do. Lockdown, I was in the gym 24/7, with one of my trainers.”
A recovery from a muscle injury can be tricky, especially in terms of how they can affect a player’s psyche. Will the muscle heal completely? Will it hold in a full sprint? Weah insists he had no doubts, despite the repeated setbacks.
“I never thought about getting injured again,” he said. “I wasn’t holding myself back, thinking about, ‘OK, what if I do this? What will happen to my leg? Will I get injured again?’ I really wasn’t thinking about that. My mindset was just, ‘You’re always just pushing your limits. If you get injured, you get injured, but don’t hold yourself back. Just continue pushing forward.’ It’s been great so far. And, you know, I really haven’t had a relapse, and I feel good. I feel fit, 100 percent, and I’m ready to go.”
About the only question is where Weah should play. He has been penciled in as a winger or second striker for most of his club career, although the spell as a wing-back gave him a new perspective on the game.
“It was different. It was cool having everything in front of me,” he said. “I liked it. I was a bit nervous because you don’t want to slip up on defense, but it was a great feeling. It was something new.”
Weah’s recovery, as well as his versatility, has him well positioned to help the U.S. in the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League. Berhalter feels Weah’s best position is still to be determined.
“[Weah] is aggressive,” the U.S. manager said. “I still think he’s finding his footing a little bit in terms of what position he’s best at, whether that’s as a second striker or whether that’s as a wide player.”
But Weah is focused on being part of the group again, a generation that has immense upside.
“This team is going to be a force,” he said. “There’s huge, huge talent on this team.”
After the past two years, Weah can celebrate being a part of it again.