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Tough night for the Courage, great night for the sport

International soccer comes to Cary

NC Courage coach Paul Riley and midfielder Samantha Mewis, a member of the U.S. World Cup champions, discuss the Women's International Champions Cup. The Courage faces Manchester City in the event at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Aug. 15, 2019.
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NC Courage coach Paul Riley and midfielder Samantha Mewis, a member of the U.S. World Cup champions, discuss the Women's International Champions Cup. The Courage faces Manchester City in the event at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Aug. 15, 2019.

For minutes that seemed like hours, the NC Courage players had to stand on their own field and watch Olympique Lyon celebrate with a trophy that so recently had belonged to them, and in that moment, as in the 90-plus minutes that preceded it, the notion that this was some informal appendix to the schedule seemed utterly preposterous.

This mattered, as much as it ever could.

The Courage did not repeat as champions of this four-team International Champions Cup that has every indication of growing in the years to come. They did force the best team in Europe to take it with the utmost seriousness, even in the middle of its preseason preparations, no small feat at that.

A stunner of a goal by Dzsenifer Marozsan from 25 yards out was the difference in a 1-0 Lyon win, with no shortage of chances for either side in a match played at the highest level.

Both teams started everyone and substituted -- or, more pointedly, did not substitute -- like this was a cup final, not an August exhibition. Nor do goalkeepers typically get carded for dawdling in a fitness-building friendly. Nor do more than 8,000 fans show up for any of that as they did Sunday.

Slap all the asterisks on it you want. There were none on the field Sunday.

There was just talent, lots of it, playing for stakes that may have been inconsequential compared to the NWSL season but were no less high.

Lyon wanted to repeat the embarrassment of a year ago, the best of Europe attempting to defend the honor it failed to defend last August in Miami. The Courage wanted to prove that victory over Lyon in Miami was no fluke, but a true statement of superiority.

“I felt tonight the two best teams in the world were playing each other,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “That’s how I felt. I’m sure there would be some disagreement over who the two best teams are, but this was it to me.”

This was truly best-in-the-world type stuff, with all three of the European player-of-the-year finalists on the field for Lyon -- Ada Hegerberg, Lucy Bronze and Amandine Henry -- and six of the Courage’s seven World Cup players in the starting 11, with the seventh coming on as a substitute.

Stereotypically, Lyon played patiently and compactly and the Courage forward and directly, each a totem of their continent’s style, but both sides had their chances in an even first half as the Courage’s Samantha Mewis and Crystal Dunn dominated the midfield. Stephanie Labbe made two big saves for the Courage and got a little help from the crossbar, while the Courage’s best chances were snuffed out by the resolute Lyon defense, often within feet of the goal.

It was left to a player who missed the World Cup due to injury, Germany’s Marozsan, to settle things in the 57th minute, teeing it up from 25 yards out and leaving Labbe no chance.

Unlike Thursday, when the Courage scored two goals in the final 15 minutes for a 2-1 win over Manchester City, its opponent did not wilt in the heat. Lyon, which looked pedestrian in its 1-0 win over Atletico de Madrid earlier Thursday, was in midseason form Sunday.

“They didn’t play their best Thursday,” Riley said. “They played their best tonight. You make Lyon play their best, you’ve done something.”

The organizers of this tournament, Relevant Sports Group, have bigger plans: more teams, more venues, more games. The men’s version of the tournament is essentially a preseason jamboree, a chance for elite teams to prepare for their seasons against other elite teams. There are other opportunities to determine the best club in the world.

The women don’t have that at the moment. At a time when the professional game seems to be growing exponentially, especially overseas, there isn’t a best-on-best club competition. FIFA has discussed it. Until that happens, this is the next best thing.

Sunday, it was the best thing, the best women’s club soccer has to offer, on any continent.

“That was really important for women’s soccer,” Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper said. “There’s some momentum there. Hopefully we showcased the sport.”

It was a disappointing night for the Courage. It was a glorious night for women’s soccer.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, 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.