The North Carolina Courage faces its biggest test in team history Sunday night, taking on five-time European champion Lyon of France in the final game of the inaugural International Champions Cup at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
Lyon, which has won 12 consecutive French league titles and three Champions League titles in a row, boasts a highly-paid roster that looks like a European All-Star team. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who scored 42 goals in 25 games last season, is among the players to watch, along with several standouts from the French and German national teams.
U.S. star Alex Morgan of the Orlando Pride was on loan with Lyon last year, so many U.S. fans are familiar with the club.
The Courage, meanwhile, will be missing six of its best players, as they are on duty with their national teams for the Tournament of Nations.
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Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Samantha Mewis, McCall Zerboni, and Merritt Mathias are with the U.S. national team, which faces Australia Sunday in East Hartford, Conn. Debinha is traveling with the Brazilian team.
Sunday’s ICC final kicks off at 9 p.m. and is being televised on ESPN2. The third-place game is at 6:15 p.m. between Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, which lost 3-0 to Lyon on Thursday.
Despite the depleted roster, the Courage managed to beat PSG 2-1 on Thursday with goals by Jess McDonald and Darian Jenkins, the former UCLA star who battled injuries last year. It was Jenkins’ first goal for the Courage.
The absence of so many regulars has given Courage coach Paul Riley a chance to use younger players such as Tori Hansen, a University of North Carolina commit and defender on the Under-19 academy team; and midfielder Julia Aronov, a Rutgers University commit.
“It’s a privilege to be here and we are excited to play against the top team in Europe,” Riley said Saturday. “Lyon have many of the world’s finest players, and it will be a tough game for us. But we have different qualities from most European teams, and it will be an interesting clash of styles...It’s been a magical experience for our group and we look forward to showing the world what we are capable of and the qualities of the NWSL as the most competitive league in women’s soccer.”
North Carolina’s midfield features former U.S. star Heather O’Reilly and Ireland’s Denise O’Sullivan. The attack is led by forwards Lynn Williams and McDonald.
Defender Jaelene Hinkle rejoined the Courage this week after training with the U.S. national team.
Hinkle, a devout Christian, made headlines last year when she declined a national team call-up because the players wore rainbow-colored numbers on their jerseys to celebrate Pride Month. She did play for the Courage on their Pride Night and has never had a problem with a gay teammate, but she said she felt uncomfortable wearing the national team’s rainbow jersey and was willing to give up her spot on the team because of her beliefs.
Her decision was heavily criticized in the LGBTQ community, and some said she should never get another invitation to the national team. But U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who is married to a woman, called Hinkle back into camp earlier this month before cutting her from the final 23-player Tournament of Nations roster.