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NC Courage want to defend title, but will rotate squad for Women’s ICC

Debinha: “This tournament is going to show us which level we’re at in the world.”

North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley watches his team work against Sky Blue FC on May 4, 2019 in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — Those 11 players on the pitch Sunday for the North Carolina Courage in a loss to the Portland Thorns? Don’t expect to see that same exact group take the field Thursday at WakeMed Soccer Park when the Courage host Manchester City in the Women’s International Champions Cup.

It’s not that Paul Riley is punishing those players, or that he’s taking the competition — which comes midseason for the Courage — lightly. He just sees the ICC as an opportunity to play all of his players, from the World Cup stars like Crystal Dunn to the rookies like Leah Pruitt and the nearly-retired veterans like Heather O’Reilly.

“When you look at the midfield, what goes out Sunday will not be the same that rolls out on Thursday, and then that will not be the same midfield that rolls out the following Sunday,” Riley told Pro Soccer USA last week. “I think it’s important to rotate… It’s a title for us, but more so it gives every one an opportunity.”

The second edition of the Women’s International Champions Cup begins Thursday in Cary, in what will likely be a hot and sticky mid-August day. Along with the Courage, who won the inaugural competition last year in Miami, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid and French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais will compete for the crown.

Each team is littered with handfuls of players who featured in the recent World Cup in France — the Courage have seven — and each enter the tournament recognized as the top team from their respective league. The Courage won the NWSL shield and title last season, Lyon won Europe’s Champions League, Manchester City won the FA Women’s Cup and Madrid was first in Spain’s Primera División for the 2018-19 season.

For Courage midfielder Debinha, who played in four 2019 World Cup games with Brazil, the ICC is another chance to measure herself against the best on the planet.

“This tournament is going to show us which level we’re at in the world,” Debinha said. “Last year we won against a great team, Lyon. For us, playing against these teams is going to be amazing. I’m so excited.”

Among the top players coming into North Carolina’s Research Triangle this weekend are two-time PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, Ballon d’Or Féminin holder Ada Hegerberg, English national team defender Steph Houghton, and 2019 World Cup Golden Glove winner Sari van Veenendaal. Two other finalists for this year’s FIFA Best Women’s Player — Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry — will also be in town.

The ICC also allows six subs instead of three, so there’s plenty of room for squad rotation and plenty of chances for the fans to see these world-class players.

Riley’s side just played in front of an announced NWSL record crowd of 25,218 fans in Portland on Sunday, and with all the star-power on one pitch, the Courage and ICC organizers are hoping for a big turnout. 

“It’s a great opportunity for us in front of our home fans. I don’t know if you get the four best teams ever coming to North Carolina,” Riley said. “Lyon is on the other side of the bracket and Manchester City is a very, very good team that has put a lot of money into their program.”

And while Riley plans to rotate his squad, don’t expect to see a soft or inexperienced lineup on the pitch. Riley, and the Courage players, want to defend their title and want to show that their team and league can hang with anyone in the world.

“We want to play the best teams. Sam Mewis can’t get better unless she’s playing against the best players week in and week out, and that’s why she stayed in this league. And now you can play the top teams from Europe on top of that. It’s great,” Riley said. “I think it means a lot for the leagues that are involved too. We want to represent our league as best as we possibly can, so, in saying that, we’ll put the best lineup we can out to try and be successful.”

Lyon and Madrid will begin the tournament on Aug. 15, facing off at 5 p.m. ET. The Courage will take on Manchester City afterward, with an expected kickoff at 7:30 p.m. ET. Both of those games and Sunday’s third-place game will be streamed on ESPN+. ESPN2 will carry Sunday’s championship match at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Last year’s ICC came during a FIFA window, so the Courage were without six starters who were away with their respective national teams. Riley’s side won anyway, but this year’s contest presents new challenges with it being slated smack-dab in the middle of the NWSL schedule. The Courage had to move one game — against the Houston Dash, from Aug. 16 to Sept. 17 — to make their schedule work for the tournament, and they play another league game Aug. 24.

But you won’t hear the Courage cry about their schedule. They’re up for the challenge.

“It’s right in the middle of the season and it’s not easy for us to play, but we’ve got a deep squad and there’s an opportunity for some other players to step up now,” Riley said. “We’re going to play like we normally play. We’re not going to adapt that much. We’ll go after the game like we normally do, put the pressure on them and see what they’re made of.”

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