Team sports are back, baby!
It’s hard to believe that one year ago tomorrow I was sitting high in the press box at Parc des Princes in Paris as the United States Women’s National Team knocked off the host nation France in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The nation and the world were captured by the thrill and exhilaration as the United States went on to win their second consecutive world title a few weeks later.
Fast forward to today and we’re living in a world where no professional team sports have taken place since March as COVID-19 has lock everything down. At least until today, when the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC will face off on CBS at 12:30 p.m. ET. If you look back longingly on the times when you could sit on the couch and cheer on your favorite team then there is no better time to discover the majesty of professional women’s soccer. How could anyone possibly say no to an opportunity to watch two star-studded rosters battle it out in the first professional contest since we were all quarantined many months ago.
Meet the North Carolina Courage
The National Women’s Soccer League is holding a month-long tournament, dubbed the 2020 Challenge Cup, to determine the winner of their season, and by luck of the draw the best team in the country, and probably the world, is kicking the whole thing off. The North Carolina Courage have dominated the NWSL over the last two seasons, boasting a roster that includes a multitude of USWNT stars like Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, and Jessica McDonald. The Courage play a quick-attacking, high-press system that will enthrall even those who say that soccer is a boring sport. They’ve won the last two NWSL Championships to the tune of 3-0 and 4-0 while thoroughly outclassing their competition. The team that won the title in 2019 is back in full force, and head coach Paul Riley said in a press conference yesterday that he couldn’t wait to unleash the players.
Outside of their four American superstars, the Courage also have one of the deepest rosters in the league. The starting lineup is sprinkled with up-and-coming talent from around the world. Abby Erceg (New Zealand) has emerged as one of, if not THE, premier centerback in the league. Her imposing size and positioning have helped the Courage allow fewer than 1 goal per game against them over the last three seasons. Denise O’Sullivan (Ireland) has become one of the scrappiest defensive midfielders in the league, and she has become the face of an emerging Irish Women’s National Team. Debinha (Brazil) brings every bit of flair that you would expect from a player who has been learning from Marta for the last few years and is projected to be the face of her nation going forward. The team is stacked from top to bottom, but the lack of a mega-star like Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan has allowed the team to develop a deep personal identity that mostly revolves around kicking ass.
If you want to see true class and athleticism on display, then look no further than today’s match against Portland Thorns FC.
Are they really the best team in the world?
The biased side of me says absolutely yes, but the real answer is a bit more nuanced.
There is one team in Europe that could realistically claim to be a better team than the Courage, and that team is Olympique Lyonnais. Lyon has won the last six European international club tournaments and are hands-down the greatest women’s soccer program in the Old World. They boast the best players from the best national teams in Europe, including a large portion of the French Women’s National Team as well as a sprinkling of players from England, Germany, and elsewhere. The players are paid the highest salaries in the world and they are rarely challenged in league play.
Now, normally a comparison between two teams on different continents would be purely academic and conjecture, but we are fortunate enough to live in a world where these two teams have played against each other twice in the last two seasons. In 2018, the Courage shocked everyone by beating Lyon 1-0 in Miami at the International Champions Cup despite missing all of their USWNT players. The two teams faced off again in 2019, but this time it was Lyon that pulled out the 1-0 win thanks to a stunning goal from Dzsenifer Marozsán. At the very worst the two teams are evenly matched, but here’s what puts the Courage over the top. The NWSL, despite limited funding, is putting on a tournament to showcase women’s soccer in America. UEFA, despite virtually infinite monetary assets, has suspended the Women’s Champions League until August and will change the format to just a three-tier knockout tournament.
What about Portland?
Portland Thorns FC are not quite to the level of the Courage at present, but they still boast a thrilling lineup of players you might just recognize. The team normally has USWNT star Tobin Heath on the pitch, but she has pulled out of the tournament due to worries about coronavirus. That still leaves the team with a pool of fantastic players, including Christine Sinclair, the record holder for most goals in international soccer, men or women. They also have World Cup winners like Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsay Horan, and Meghan Klingenberg. Unfortunately, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who was also part of the World Cup-winning squad last summer, has suffered an injury and will not be available.
The Thorns have a very good roster, but they are going to be the underdogs in this match despite the talent they bring to the pitch.
How to watch
OK, now that you’ve been convinced you’re probably wondering what obscure cable channel you’re going to need to pay for to watch this match...but all you really need is an antenna. Unlike so many USWNT over the past few years, this match won’t be on ESPNews or Fox Sports 2. Nope, this one will be broadcast over the air on your local CBS station. So kick back at 12:30 p.m. ET tomorrow afternoon, turn on the TV, and tune in to remember what it’s like to live in an era with live professional sports. You might not continue watching women’s soccer after today, but you’re sitting in your house anyways; might as well watch the best women’s soccer team in the world.