Tar Heels of the Month: World Cup winning NC Courage players lift up local soccer
Even before the rain started falling Friday night, leaving drenched soccer fans to huddle under whatever cover they could find at WakeMed Soccer Park while waiting for a game that would not eventually be played that evening, the North Carolina Courage couldn’t catch a break.
The Courage was expecting a solid crowd of more than 8,000 on Friday even without its four U.S. stars from the World Cup, but got a flooded field, a 21-hour delay instead, and about half that many made it back for Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit.
In the 27 days since the United States won in France, the Courage has played two home games and their American stars from that team have appeared in neither. The first was only six days after the final, which was too soon. The other, Friday night delayed to Saturday afternoon, conflicted with the first game of the U.S. Victory Tour, against Ireland at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, no thanks to U.S. Soccer.
So while other NWSL teams have played to overflow crowds — the kind of crowds to which the Courage have long ago become accustomed — and showcased the supernova stardom of their World Cup heroes over the past month, the Courage hasn’t had that chance. By Sunday morning, Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Samantha Mewis will have played more games in Pasadena than Cary since the World Cup.
In this limited window when the U.S. women are on top of the world, before the rest of the sporting world comes stomping through, the Courage has played two home games and had its U.S. World Cup stars for neither. Saturday’s Victory Tour game came at a bad time for the entire NWSL, with the Spirit also missing Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle on Saturday, but Pugh has at least played one home game for the Spirit since France, and that was a sellout.
While two of their other World Cup players led them to victory Saturday -— Brazil’s Debinha scored the goal, and Canada’s Stephanie Labbe made two late saves to preserve the victory — the four U.S. stars won’t play at home for the Courage until the International Champions Cup later this month, 39 days after they lifted the trophy, an eternity by the attention-span standards of today’s sporting world, especially with the twin behemoths of the NFL and college football grinding into gear.
Capitalizing on this momentum is all the more critical for the Courage, now that the team has become the standard-bearer for the proposed downtown stadium that’s actually a half-hour walk from the edge of downtown, more Garner North than Downtown South. The potential for an MLS franchise has always been an implied part of the stadium package, if not an explicit one, but that ship has clearly sailed, with MLS commissioner Don Garber’s unadulterated praise last week of Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper’s Charlotte bid the final knife in the back.
There was a window, a decade ago, when the Triangle was an ideal MLS expansion market lacking only an owner. While it sat waiting for one, the rest of the country went shooting past, and North Carolina FC and Courage owner Stephen Malik’s soccer expertise and ambition may exceed Tepper’s, but not his finances — which is why he’s now asking for public money to be diverted from the Raleigh Convention Center and PNC Arena to his stadium, after declaring his intention two years ago to pay for one himself.
The City of Raleigh and Wake County will take that request under consideration this month, the soccer stadium having been left out of the initial hospitality-tax allocations. If the Courage is going to be the anchor tenant, that’s a case it has to make with more than 4,393 bodies in the bleachers, and the lack of a World Cup boost is devastating, because the Courage continues to do everything right on the field.
Paul Riley is only the second NWSL coach ever nominated for FIFA Coach of the Year honors, the Courage will defend its unofficial club world championship in two weeks in Cary against Olympique Lyon and Atletico Madrid and Manchester City — the best Europe has to offer, with three dozen World Cup stars expected — and finished a respectable 5-2-3 without the U.S. players during the World Cup (and Saturday) to remain in position to repeat as NWSL champions.
“We’ve weathered it,” said Riley, who worried about being six or seven points back at this point instead of two ahead. “I don’t think we could be in a better spot.”
Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that everything’s on hold for the moment. One frequent in-game promo Saturday for the International Champions Cup semifinals on Aug. 15 noted that Dahlkemper, Dunn, McDonald and Mewis would play their first home game of the second half of the season “in less than two weeks.” It was almost wistful.