Women’s World Cup stars come to Cary for International Champions Cup

The North Carolina Courage will host teams from France, Spain and England

Heather O'Reilly scored the lone goal in the North Carolina Courage's 1-0 win over Olympique Lyonnais in the final of the 2018 International Champions Cup in Miami. This year's tournament will be held in Cary starting next week. (Sam Navarro / Miami Herald via AP)

CARY — The FIFA Women’s World Cup captured the attention of soccer fans all around the globe this summer, especially here in the United States.

But because it was held in France, the tournament was an event to be watched and celebrated from afar.

Although the trophies have been awarded and the winning U.S. team’s victory lap is well underway, next week’s International Champions Cup at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park will give fans in North Carolina at least a taste of what the competition was like.

Hosted by the North Carolina Courage, the ICC features league champions from the U.S., France, England and Spain in what is an abbreviated women’s version of the popular men’s UEFA Champions League. The semifinals will be played on Thursday, Aug. 15 with the championship and consolation matches scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 18 and televised live on ESPN2.

Each team — the Courage, Olympique Lyonnais, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid — has players that represented their countries in the World Cup. That includes the Courage’s Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Jessica McDonald and Abby Dahlkemper of the U.S., Canada’s Stephanie Labbe, Brazil’s Debinha, and New Zealand’s Abby Erceg.

“This will be the highest quality, with the most star power of any women’s club tournament ever,” said Curt Johnson, president and general manager of the Courage.

“We’re fortunate that this will be the first game for our four World Cup champions to play for the Courage on home soil in their home stadium, so it’s kind of a welcome home, too.”

The ICC was developed and is promoted by Relevent Sports Group, an organization that specializes in bringing high-profile European soccer clubs to the U.S. to play exhibition games. The Courage won last year’s inaugural event in Miami, but because of poor attendance, this year’s tournament was moved to the Cary-based team’s home field.

Organizers are also hoping that the carryover in excitement generated by the U.S. victory in France will also help spike attendance at the 10,000-seat Sahlen’s Stadium.

Not that they were intentionally looking to piggyback off the post-World Cup interest in women’s soccer.

“We had many months of conversation about the right format and the right timing, and after a lot of discussion these were the dates that worked best for everyone,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t be more excited about it. We’re a little under two weeks out and the buzz is definitely growing.”

The Courage beat Olympique Lyonnais 1-0 on a goal by Heather O’Reilly for the title last summer.

Like the Courage, which leads the National Women’s Soccer League with an 8-3-4 record, Olympic Lyonnais returns most of the same players from that squad, including former North Carolina defender Lucy Bronze and leading scorer Ada Hegerberg.

Manchester City boasts two of the top scorers in England in Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway, who have accounted for 39 of their team’s 49 goals between them this season. Atletico Madrid is led by goalie Lola Gallard, who has allowed only 17 goals in her last 25 games, along with 21-goal scorer Jennifer Hermoso and rising Brazilian star Ludmila.

According to the former U.S. national team member O’Reilly, it’s a lineup that highlights the quality and depth of the women’s game in other countries besides America.

“The ICC Tournament is the premier display of international club football and has been for years,” the veteran midfielder, who plans to retire after this season with the Courage, said in a statement. “It shows growth of the women’s game and gives an opportunity for club football to be supported the way that national teams are. Visibility is key and the ICC is fantastic for player and club visibility. It is also just straight-up entertaining.”

Olympique Lyonnais and Atletico Madrid will play the first semifinal on Aug. 15 with the Courage taking on Manchester City immediately afterward. Tickets are available on the ICC website.