North Carolina Courage, Lyon take different paths to ICC final
CARY, N.C. -- They know a thing or two about soccer teams that are larger than life here. They knew long before the North Carolina Courage and Lyon won Thursday's semifinals in the Women's International Champions Cup.
People in this area lived it when Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly & Co. ran the rest of college soccer off the field playing for Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina.
They experienced it when the U.S. women's national team, far from distracted by its off-field fights for social change and gender equality, rolled through World Cup qualifying here last fall.
Maybe that's why they were slow to arrive, the stands at WakeMed Soccer Park filling only when the Courage prepared to take the field against Manchester City in the second game of the night. Maybe they're too used to larger than life to suffer through extra humidity on a weeknight.
Or maybe they just prefer the more life-sized success of the team that calls this place home.
The reigning champions of the National Women's Soccer League and Europe, respectively, the North Carolina Courage and Lyon have much in common when it comes to success. That was true even before each won ICC semifinals the same way, scoring in second-half stoppage time to reach the final.
But it is difficult to imagine two teams so similarly successful with two more different souls.
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Thursday was a chance to take in the traveling road show that is Lyon, the rock-star team with the grandest roster in the sport which beat Atletico Madrid 1-0. And it was a night to appreciate the relentless, grinding resolve of the Courage, who rallied to beat Manchester City 2-1.
It's impossible to miss that Lyon is larger than life when you see a line stretching from defense to attack made up of Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Ada Hegerberg. That's Dream Team stuff.
In what was simultaneously a game of consequence but also its preseason opener, Lyon wasn't the best version of itself. With some teams, a very small handful, it doesn't matter. Not because they're that much better than the other teams here. You watch because you can't take your eyes off them.
There is only one other team in the world like that at the moment, and the U.S. women are taking time off.
"I think the fact that we have all the best players in the world on one team kind of says it all," Lyon's Lucy Bronze said before the semifinal. "That breeds the competition within the team that made me want to join Lyon. I wanted to play with the best players, and that continues to happen each and every year."
Lyon has won four consecutive Champions League titles. Its last loss in any competition was a year ago, against the Courage in the final of this same event. But for much of a steamy afternoon in Cary, soccer's version of a high-performance car looked as if someone were using it to try to learn how to drive a stick shift.
Courage coach Paul Riley said it looked as if they were going 10 mph.
No matter how seriously they take this tournament, this is still the start of a very long journey made all the longer by knowing exactly how arduous it will be. So rather than a sense of urgency, Lyon played with a champion's almost arrogant calm.
"I think every year we always have to analyze," Hegerberg said. "Personally I also have to always analyze, make a conclusion from the last season -- what was good, what needs to be worked on a little bit more? Does anything need to be changed in the way we work, the way we think? Every year [we] strive for the next step. That's something that I strive for as an individual, and that's why it's perfect being on such a team as Lyon.
"Because every year we want to stay on stop. One thing is getting to the top, but another thing is staying there."
Lyon is bigger than its championships. It has a platform unlike any other team in the club game. And Hegerberg -- who famously sat out the World Cup after walking away from the Norwegian national team because of what she felt was unfair and unequal treatment for the women's team -- didn't hesitate to speak to the issue, especially with that topic in the news here because of the U.S. team's fight.
"I think everyone in the world is fighting their fight, even though it's not in the press," Hegerberg said. "You have everyday heroes, you call them, everywhere. Not only in sports. But it's a fight to get there. You need to stick together. The more people you have, the more women who stick together, the more power you get. Power to make a change.
"People think it's only about money, but it's a lot about respect as well, being put in the place you deserve. It should be a trend everywhere."
If the Ballon d'Or winner speaking eloquently about social inequality after a win fit Lyon's profile, it was no less appropriate that McKenzie Meehan was among those in the spotlight for North Carolina after its win.
You might not know Meehan. While she put up some gaudy numbers at Boston College, she totaled only one assist in three seasons with Sky Blue FC before being traded to the Courage in June. She has played sparingly, but when the second-half lightning delay that lasted more than an hour forced Riley to take out stars Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams, Meehan was one of the subs.
She scored the equalizer, her first goal as a professional, in the 84th minute, chesting down a corner kick and driving the ball home.
Jessica McDonald finished the job in stoppage time, gathering in a long pass, splitting two defenders and scoring to ignite celebrations among the hardy few fans who remained.
"In reflection, the whole [delay] really served us," North Carolina's Heather O'Reilly said. "That's what this team is about. If you know you have 20 minutes to perform -- we know we're a deep team, we know they're in preseason and we're at the fittest part of the season, we have players that are willing to run and do the work."
North Carolina rolled through the league a season ago, winning both the NWSL Shield and championship game. But it is more comfortable as the outsider. The team forced into what Riley described as a 2-2-3-3 formation in the closing minutes Thursday. The team that Mewis last week said needed to always maintain the blue-collar identity it forged as the Western New York Flash before relocating.
The Courage don't want to be Lyon. They just want to beat Lyon when the two meet Sunday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET; Atletico and Manchester City play at 4:55 p.m. ET on ESPNews).
"With all due respect to Madrid, I think we would have all been disappointed to not face Lyon here on this field and get another go at them," O'Reilly said. "Last year I think we raised some eyebrows by getting the result."