Luke DeCock

With comeback, NC Courage gets another shot at the world’s best

Whatever claim the NC Courage had to being the best women’s club in the world -- and for the past 11 months, the Courage has had as good a claim as any on this continent or any other -- was about to evaporate in the heat Thursday night, going from reality to memory in the time it took to dodge a tackle.

Almost as quickly -- albeit after a rain delay of more than an hour -- the Courage was in position to stake an even better case.

With two goals in the final 15 minutes, the second in the dying seconds of injury time, the Courage turned disappointment into destiny with a 2-1 win over England’s Manchester City. That put the Courage on a collision course, again, with European champion Olympique Lyon of France, the club the Courage beat last August in Miami in the title game of the inaugural Women’s International Champions Cup.

“It’s going to be an intense game,” Crystal Dunn said. “A battle of two of the top teams in the world.”

As tournament hosts this year, the Courage was nearly undone by a first-half defensive miscue Thursday. When Georgia Stanway skipped through an Abby Erceg tackle at the edge of the box, long before the weather closed in, the Courage was on the verge of losing far more than what was still, despite all the extravagances, an exhibition.

The Courage had no shortage of chances to that point, including a disallowed Crystal Dunn goal, and it made good after the unexpected break, throwing everything forward in the heat and humitidy. McKenzie Meehan rifled a knocked-down corner top shelf to make it 1-1, and with time running out, Jessica McDonald broke down the left center of the field, beat two Manchester City defenders and slid in the winning goal.

Suddenly, the repeat triple was back in play Sunday: unofficial world championship, NWSL regular-season title and NWSL championship, although there’s certainly more work to do this time around on the latter two than there was at this point last year.

“It was one of those perfect seasons where nothing went wrong last year, no injuries, things like that, games we won late because the rub of the game our way,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “This year has been the opposite. We’ve been fighting adversity all season because of the World Cup, but I feel like our luck changed a little tonight in the last 15 minutes.”

With so few chances for NWSL teams to match themselves against their European counterparts, there would have been some solace anyway that the Courage continues to prove itself every bit the equal of these top European teams, even under these unequal conditions. As good as Manchester City was, as precise in its passing and composed in possession despite an obvious preseason lack of stamina, the Courage was every bit its match, especially with three of its four American stars from the World Cup playing their first games at home since France.

Lyon, though, is a different animal. Of the teams here, or anywhere, Lyon has the most starpower and firepower, with familiar names from the World Cup -- including former UNC player, briefly, Lucy Bronze and French internationals Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry, the latter a member of the Portland Thorns when that team denied the Courage the NWSL title in 2017-- and the best player in the world, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg. Lyon was clearly the superior team in Thursday’s first semifinal, a 1-0 win over Spain’s Atletico Madrid.

Getting another chance for the Courage to measure itself against Lyon wasn’t the point of hosting this tournament, but it wasn’t far off.

“With all respect to (Atletico), it would have been really disappointing not to face Lyon in the final,” said Heather O’Reilly, who scored the winner against Lyon last time. “Last year, we raised some eyebrows, but the national-team players weren’t playing and it was preseason for them and etcetera. Now we’ve got a chance to do it again and solidify that we are one of the best, if not the best, teams in the world.”

The Courage played with a fluidity and attacking thrust that the three European teams lacked Thursday, understandably since those teams are just beginning their season while the Courage is in the home stretch of its season, not to mention wilting in the August heat. But still: even under the best circumstances, any future FIFA club championship, as was discussed in the immediate afterglow of the World Cup, is going to have to deal with some form of schedule conflict.

In an ideal scenario, the NWSL finalists would play the previous season’s UEFA Champions League finalists immediately after the NWSL season, while the European clubs are in full swing. Those logistics may be too complicated, but given the growth of the women’s game, and the impetus to do more, they may also finally be surmountable.

For now, this is the best option out there. Sunday is as close as we’re going to get.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.