AP NEWS

Courage get to defend International Champions Cup title on home turf

March 29, 2019

Last year, the North Carolina Courage traveled to Miami to participate in the inaugural Women’s International Champions Cup and returned to the Triangle triumphant, having defeated two of Europe’s top teams to win the four-team, weekend tournament.

This summer, the Courage will again participate in the Women’s ICC to defend their title with a twist: The tournament is coming to them.

Event organizers will announce Friday that the Women’s ICC will be played in mid-August at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. The semifinals will take place on Thursday, Aug. 15, and the championship and consolation matches will be played on Sunday, Aug. 18.

Curt Johnson, the Courage’s president and general manager, said conversations with Relevent Sports, the ICC’s organizer and promoter, about hosting some portion of the 2019 Women’s ICC began before last year’s event ended.

“Obviously, the event last year from a competition standpoint was a big success,” Johnson says. “It was organized very well, and we were thrilled to participate. The ICC and Relevent Sports ran a first-class event. What was obvious to anyone watching was that the venue there [Hard Rock Stadium in Miami] is very large, it’s very expensive to operate, and the tickets didn’t sell well there. Immediately, we were talking with the leadership of Relevent Sports about the best sites to host the 2019 version. That’s when we first began talking about hosting, was at last year’s event.”

“We’ve shown that we enjoy hosting big events,” Johnson continues. “Last year, we hosted a wider variety of different soccer events in one facility than any in the country, between the U.S. men’s national team, Concacaf women’s World Cup qualifying, the NCAA College Cup, and ACC Tournament, plus our men’s and women’s pro soccer teams.”

Courage head coach Paul Riley says that while he and his team didn’t know what to expect entering the inaugural Women’s ICC, last year’s experience left them eager to participate again.

“Last year was an amazing experience for the players,” Riley says. “The ICC took care of the players as good as you can imagine, and we were treated the same as the men’s ICC event. Despite the fact that there wasn’t big attendance [for the Women’s ICC] down in Miami, they wanted to give it another shot, and hopefully our people around here will come out and support games with all four teams. We want this to be something that we can play in every year.”

Four club teams are again slated to compete in the 2019 tournament: Olympique Lyonnais Féminin (Lyon), Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, and the Courage. The Courage won the 2018 NWSL Championship. Lyon, which lost to the Courage in last year’s ICC final, boasts twelve consecutive French league championships and three straight UEFA Women’s Champions League titles. Manchester City, which also played in last year’s ICC, were the 2018 runner-up in England’s FA Women’s Super League. Atlético Madrid has won two straight Liga Femenina Iberdrola titles. All three European teams played in this year’s Champions League, with Lyon already advancing to the semifinals.

Match pairings will be announced at a later date, and the event is scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN.

Tournament organizers originally contemplated a wider event for 2019 involving more teams and multiple venues. But, that effort was complicated by the task of finding open dates to reserve those venues amid a congested World Cup calendar.

“My hope is that when we’re planning for the 2020 event, it is a larger field [of teams] and there’s a window of time that’s identified prior to the NWSL schedule being produced,” Johnson says.

The Women’s ICC is an offshoot of the men’s variant that’s been bringing European powers to the United States for summer scrimmages since 2013 (the ICC replaced the World Football Challenge). While last year’s Women’s ICC was played in late July, shifting the 2019 tournament to mid-August will position it after the FIFA Women’s World Cup, presumably allowing national team players for each club, including the Courage, to compete.

“The good thing for this year is that we’ll have all our players here and be able to play full out with a full lineup,” Riley says. “It went well last year in terms of closing our opponents down and making things difficult. Hopefully this year we can play a little bit better and maybe control the game better than we did last year.”

“I know [the European teams] enjoy playing against the American teams,” Riley adds. “They think we’re all just brawn and speed. They don’t think we can actually play. It’s nice for them to realize we can play, too.”

Plans for the 2019 Women’s ICC were finalized last week. As a result, the Courage will work to reschedule their NWSL regular season home match against the Houston Dash scheduled for Friday, August 16. The North Carolina FC men’s team will still play their home regular match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday, August 17.

“Relevent Sports and Steve [Malik, the Courage’s owner] and our management team negotiated a very fair deal that rewards us for being the host,” Johnson says. “It’s a lot of time and energy. It’s in the middle of our men and women’s seasons, so it’s a very fair deal financially.”

The Women’s ICC continues to fill a void left by the lack of international women’s club soccer competitions, particularly outside of Europe. There’s still no continental club tournament in North America, and unlike men’s pro soccer, there still isn’t a FIFA Women’s Club World Cup.

“One of the focal points of the women’s soccer game right now needs to be around creating an annual event that showcases the best women’s club teams in meaningful competition,” Johnson says. “The Women’s ICC is in year two, and hopefully in years to come we can look back and say that was the beginning of something that’s grown into an event that the eyes of the world are on.”