The North Carolina Courage fell to Olympique Lyonnais Féminin in the first-plac match at the 2019 International Champions Cup Women’s Tournament on Sunday night. The 1-0 scoreline in favor of Lyon was the inverse of last year’s final that the Courage won, but this year’s game was a thousand times better than the one last season. Everything about the two games perfectly echos the way the two years have gone for the Courage. 2018 was a magical year; the likes of which we will probably never see in the future of the National Women’s Soccer League. Literally everything that could go right for North Carolina did go right that year, including a stunning victory over Lyon despite losing the possession battle 78-22. The Courage winning that game was a fluke, and it probably wouldn’t be repeated if the two teams played the same way 100 more times.
2019 has been completely different. By and large, the ball has not been bouncing in North Carolina’s favor. Just 8 days ago, the Courage lost to Portland Thorns FC in a game where they allowed two own goals. In the game against Lyon, the Courage played something that must be tangent to their best possible match of soccer. No, every shot they took didn’t find the back of the net. There were no magic moments where the sea of white shirts parted and let a dodgy chance light up the scoreboard. Kristen Hamilton had one chance where she might have scored, but after dicing through two of the best defenders in the world, she couldn’t quite keep the fine control that she needed to beat France’s starting goalkeeper. Denise O’Sullivan, the diminutive Irish midfielder, played like a giant as she took on Ada Hegerberg, Amandine Henry, and Lucy Bronze at all levels on the pitch. Debinha played with an intensity and stamina that I never knew she had. Our two outside backs blazed up and down the pitch, taking on defenders while stifling the attacks of the best strikers in the world. In the end, it was only by the grace of a perfect strike that the Courage were scored against, and only by the constant top performance of the best side in the world that they were denied.
Here at Dirty South Soccer, we probably tend to be overly critical when things are going wrong. When players are playing poorly, we have no problem calling them out. As I watched from the auxiliary press box outside on Sunday night at WakeMed Soccer Park, there was never a moment of frustration with the team. There was never a moment where I felt disappointed with the play of any individual player. I think it’s the first time in all of the games I’ve watched that I’ve been impressed by every player to grace the pitch. And Lyon was the better side, which they are always going to be. Any team handpicked from the best players across the world s going to be the best, but the way they were tested last night...that’s something they’re not going to get until the ICC Tournament comes back in 2020.
The first 30 minutes were a blistering back-and-forth with both teams having numerous legit chances on goal. The quick forward play of the Courage alternated between generating dangerous scoring opportunities and taking the life out of otherwise fruitful chances. The pace of play was infectious, and even Lyon ended up playing most of their passes forward instead of their normal possession. The times when they did slow the game down, North Carolina was able to close them down and shut down the chances easily.
The best chances for Lyon came when they drove the ball quickly to the end line and cut it back to the top of the box. It seemed like the Courage defense was routinely caught too far toward goal with nobody covering the late runners, but these dangerous opportunities did no pay off for Lyon early in the match. On the other end, the Courage had more chances pushing the ball from the wings to the middle of the field in the attacking third and then driving up the gut.
Amel Majri nearly got a goal in the 45th minute. In a similar chance, the ball was played from the left side of goal but it was cut back and played to the top of the box for Majri. She took one touch and rocketed the ball toward the top of net. Labbe didn’t get a hand on it, but it hit crossbar and went down into the ground without going into the net. It looked like Ada Hegerberg might have a chance on goal, but she was ruled offside. Despite the late chance, the halftime whistle blew with the score knotted at 0-0.
Lyon got out quickly, earning a corner kick courtesy of substitute Shanice van de Sanden, but it was able to be cleared easily and the return shot by Majri was way wide. There was a chance for the Courage in the 51st minute, when a through ball from Samantha Mewis caused OL goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi to come way off her line and tackle the ball away from Lynn Williams. The ball rolled out to Crystal Dunn 35 yards from goal, but her chip over the defense was a touch too hard and landed on top of the goal.
Things finally broke open for Olympique Lyonnais in the 57th minute. A quick transition attack saw the Courage defense drop deep in anticipation of a through pass. Rather than send it forward into traffic, Lyon played the ball centrally to Dzsenifer Marozsan. The German midfielder took a touch, found herself in acres of space, and sent a beautiful curling shot into the top-right corner of goal. There was nothing that Labbe could do against the quick trigger shot from Maro.
Things tilted toward the Courage after the goal, because Lyon dropped back and started leaving more players behind the ball. OL defender Wendie Renard did a great job consistently neutralizing North Carolina’s aerial presence in the box.
It seemed like Lyon was poised to take a two-goal lead in the 85th minute, but the offside flag mercifully nullified the goal. North Carolina was able to get a few more half-chances, but the desperation direct play that worked well against Manchester City three nights earlier was not enough against the likes of Lyon. In the end, the visitors from France would unseat the hosts as best team in the world of women’s club soccer.
Tonight's match stats brought to you by @Herbalife!— Women's ICC (@iccwomen) August 19, 2019
Tight in terms of statistics, but it was @OLfeminin that were able to put the ball in the back of the net when it mattered against the @TheNCCourage. #WICC19 pic.twitter.com/Xr0jXOeTtw
This was, by absolutely every measure, an extremely even match. The Courage went toe-to-toe with Lyon’s best lineup and came up just short. If you don’t believe that Lyon was doing everything within their power to win, consider that they made just two subs on the night. They stuck with the players that they thought gave the best chance of winning. Paul Riley did the same.
This break from league play was wonderful. I get the feeling that North Carolina gained so much confidence and strength from the two matches, and if they can play the same way next weekend as they did on Sunday nght...well, Reign FC are going to have a rough night.