Abby Erceg wasn’t displaying the heavy silver cup above her head, just carrying it along like a piece of luggage at the head of her NC Courage teammates, but the fans at the bottom of the escalator could see it well enough anyway. As soon as the Courage captain descended toward baggage claim with the International Champions Cup trophy, wild cheers and applause broke out.
For all the wins and losses in sports, games played and tournaments entered, there aren’t many moments where you actually get a hero’s welcome like this. For the Courage, and the hundred or so supporters who greeted the team with chants and banners and personalized jerseys, Monday afternoon’s triumphant arrival will be etched in their memory as much as Sunday night’s victory.
Not that what happened Sunday night in Miami was any less earth-shaking: The Courage got an early goal from Heather O’Reilly and withstood the pressure of what is by acclamation the best women’s team in the world, Olympique Lyonnais, winners of three straight European titles and 12 straight French titles, to claim a precious 1-0 win and the inaugural Women’s International Champions Cup.
“Everybody across the world of women’s soccer will have heard of this result and will know the Carolina Courage,” O’Reilly said.
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Yes, it was only preseason for Lyon, as it was for semifinal opponent Paris St. Germain on Friday, and the Courage are in midseason form and running away with the NWSL, but there was a sense of the ground shifting anyway, basic assumptions about the world of women’s soccer being cast aside. The Courage were missing five players on duty with the U.S. National Team and another with Brazil, and still managed to stymie everything Lyon could throw its direction, preseason or not.
It was an impressive role reversal for the Courage, which is used to dominating possession and piling up shots against overmatched NWSL opposition but found itself on the other side Sunday. Lynn Williams’ speed forced an awkward turnover in front of the Lyon net that Williams was able to square up for the onrushing O’Reilly and an early goal. But Lyon has six of the 10 finalists for FIFA women’s world player of the year, and that talent showed as Lyon pushed for an equalizer. It could have been 3-0 at the half with the chances the Courage had on the counterattack, and it could have been 3-1 the other way with the chances Lyon had in the second half.
Lyon never did break through as the Courage’s patchwork lineup held firm for a priceless victory.
The United States is already the unquestioned world leader in international soccer; if the circumstances prevent the Courage from staking the same claim at the club level, the result at least suggested there’s a little more of a debate than Lyon might ever have thought before Sunday -- a previously inconceivable discussion Courage coach Paul Riley actually had with Lyon’s owner in the hotel gym Monday morning. In the absence of any actual world club tournament, as there is for the men, this is the closest thing to it.
“For the women’s game, it was just another level, another step. This is what we need to develop the sport, develop the game,” Riley said. “As the crowds get bigger, and hopefully now our crowds will get bigger now at home as we get more notoriety. There’s a lot of good players here. We’ve got some of the world’s best players here, and some that aren’t some of the world’s best players and still did all right. We did really well against the best team in the world. They are genuinely the best team in the world.”
As much fun as it might have been to parade the silver trophy through baggage claim Monday, a quick return to reality awaits. The Portland Thorns, one of only two teams with even the slightest hope of catching the Courage in the NWSL standings and the team that beat the Courage in the title game a year ago, come to Cary on Sunday. The national-team absentees may or may not be ready for that, depending on whether they play Thursday night, so this tired group may not have ready reinforcements.
The Courage will get Tuesday off to savor their victory, then return to training on Wednesday, their claim to world dominance, however tenuous, secure while their domestic goals are still very much theirs to achieve. If all goes as planned, this won’t be the last time they pose for pictures with their fans and a trophy.