New York—On Friday, Relevant Sports announced that the 2019 International Champions Cup Women’s Tournament is heading to North Carolina. The Courage will welcome some of Europe’s top clubs for four matches in their own home stadium, and try to earn bragging rights for the National Women’s Soccer League on an international stage for the second summer in a row.
“This is huge,” Courage midfielder Heather O’Reilly told NWSL Media after stepping off the stage in SoHo following the announcement. “It’s huge for women’s soccer. I think last year, being the first ever, was really a thrill to be part of and for us to win it. We’re very proud of that with the North Carolina Courage. And now next year, we get to host it, we get to host some of the best club teams in the world.”
The Courage will welcome Olympique Lyonnais, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. Two semifinals will be played on August 15, with the final and third-place match on August 18.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 1, 2019
For the two representatives of the North Carolina Courage at the event, O’Reilly and the club’s President and General Manager, Curt Johnson, the Women’s ICC is a step forward in the infrastructure of the sport itself.
“We can’t just rely on the World Cup every four years and the Olympics every four years to be these platforms for women’s soccer. The ICC is just another layer in professionalism and competition for the women’s game,” O’Reilly said during the announcement. “This is our club World Cup.”
For Johnson, it all comes down to one simple fact: people want it.
“They want to see the best play the best,” Johnson told NWSL Media after the announcement. “We now have a nice structure around women’s soccer that wasn’t there until 1991 at the national team level. Lots of wonderful competitions at the national team level, obviously culminating in the World Cup every four years. But we honestly don’t have it on the club side in the women’s game. People want that. The players want it, our head coach wants it, and most importantly the fans want it.”
For the Courage, who won the first ever version of the tournament last summer in Miami, hosting the 2019 edition made sense. “We have a history of hosting all different shapes and sizes of events for women’s and men’s soccer,” Johnson said. “It’s the perfect time.”
2019 isn't just a World Cup year. The International Champions Cup will be back this summer too.
— International Champions Cup Women's Tournament (@iccwomen) March 31, 2019
Hosting an event that falls outside of the standard calendar of women’s international and club soccer is easier said than done. Moving the ICC to Cary for 2019 was in the works before the first game was even played in Miami.
“I think it was a process that has been ongoing since we first talked about the 2018 event with Relevant,” Johnson said. “They approached us … possibly January of 2018, something like that, leading in to the 2018 version. We kept the dialogue going and we talked at the event about the 2019 event, their goals, what they wanted to accomplish. Obviously, one of the things that they really wanted to accomplish was: put it in a soccer-specific facility that was purpose-built. We said we’d be interested in hosting.”
Relevant Sports has been looking to expand the tournament for a while—not just for the NWSL teams involved, but to potentially end up with a 16-team field in future versions of the tournament. While this shook out, the Courage waited.
Johnson said of their offer to host, “That took many different twists and turns as they navigated how many different teams they wanted in it, the timing of the tournament, that type of thing, but we stuck with it. We told them that we would move, as they say, heaven and earth to make it happen. We were able to work it out.”
There are still a few big changes for 2019: there’s prize money on the line. The games will be broadcasted on ESPN.
For Curt Johnson, this tournament is a direct line to growing the game, and putting the Courage up against top European talent in their own backyard is a solid win. As he put it, “we’re growing the sport, we’re growing our club, and we’re growing passionate fandom.
“People need rallying points like this to raise the level,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all ships. It may not directly show in the attendance the game after, but people want to consume this type of competition and that is only going to add to the amount of fans. I hope that more NWSL teams get to be a part of it, so their fanbases are dialed into it and emotionally involved in it, and I hope that for other European, South American, Asian teams. I see a moment in time, hopefully by 2020, where this event is much larger than it is and it grows fandom.”
And as for O’Reilly, who scored the game-winning goal for the North Carolina Courage to claim the trophy last summer? She calls the Women’s ICC “a display of women’s soccer that’s not seen many places. I think it’s going to be fantastic for the NWSL, and fantastic for the global game.”