There was a collective whoop when organizers of the International Champions Cup announced a first-of-its-kind women’s competition at the summer soccer soiree. It was followed by an immediate groan that the NWSL representative, the North Carolina Courage, would have to tackle the event missing more than half their starting players due to international commitments.
The women started small. Four teams got together in Miami and played a rapid-succession knockout tournament. The Courage were drawn to play Paris Saint-Germain to open and then the winner of the other match between Lyon and Manchester City. The European sides were using the tournament as part of their preseason, but they were still stocked with talent.
The Courage took an early lead against PSG on a goal by eventual NWSL Championship MVP Jessica McDonald. But just before halftime, Kaleigh Kurtz, subbing for Abby Dahlkemper, gave away an own goal to send the game to the break tied, 1-1. The French side had the run of play for much of the second half while the Courage, according to head coach Paul Riley, “were chasing shadows for a good 15-20 minutes.” The Courage then dug into their bag of resources and found a late goal when Lynn Williams — who earlier in the year looked to be a player that would have been with the U.S. at this time — beat the PSG defense and found Darian Jenkins for her first professional goal.
Three nights later came a new challenge from Lyon. The French giants have been on top of their domestic league since 2007, when they took down the first of what has so far been a dozen straight titles. The last three have been augmented by the Champions League as well. Lyon are almost unanimously considered the best team on the planet.
The Courage did not necessarily dispel that theory, but they did figure out a way to hand Lyon a rare defeat. Heather O’Reilly, and her sterling record in finals through her illustrious career, started in midfield (after starting the first match at right back). Ten minutes in O’Reilly got on the end of a cross and put the Courage in front. Much of the next 80 minutes were spent defending. Sabrina D’Angelo made one incredible save and was bailed out once when Lyon hit the post with the keeper off her line. But O’Reilly’s goal stood up in a 1-0 win.
The victory was met with mixed reaction. The Courage were lauded in some circles for knocking off two of the best sides in Europe. In other circles, the win was chalked up to those teams being in preseason while the Courage were in the heart of their season. But as O’Reilly said after the final, “It was really a team win.”
The triumph also allowed the Courage to eventually complete their entire 2018 with only a single loss in what may well be the best season of women’s pro soccer ever.
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