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International Champions Cup shows how NWSL teams can grow their ambitions

It’s a good time for National Women's Soccer League teams to look beyond winning league games and selling tickets and merchandise off U.S. stars, and toward competing on a global stage.

Portland Thorns striker Sophia Smith (right), a likely future starter for the U.S. national team, battled repeatedly against Lyon's star French centerback Wendie Renard in the final of the Women's International Champions Cup.
Portland Thorns striker Sophia Smith (right), a likely future starter for the U.S. national team, battled repeatedly against Lyon's star French centerback Wendie Renard in the final of the Women's International Champions Cup.Read moreSean Meagher / The Oregonian

Officially, last week’s Women’s International Champions Cup was just a series of exhibitions. But it didn’t feel that way as the Portland Thorns and Lyon zipped the ball around Providence Park on Saturday in the final, a matchup of women’s club soccer superpowers the world had waited years to see.

It especially didn’t feel that way when Portland’s Morgan Weaver ran past Lyon centerback Wendie Renard and goalkeeper Christiane Endler, among the biggest names in the sport, and scored the tournament-winning goal in the 87th minute. Though the Portland stadium was only half-full as the pandemic raged around it, the roar that rose from the stands sounded like a full house.

Everyone who watched the game, from fans in the Thorns’ supporters club to executives of Spain’s LaLiga in high-end suites, knew its significance. Along with beating the biggest club team in Europe, the biggest club team in the United States was making a statement about the future of women’s club soccer in the United States.

So were the Houston Dash when they jumped on reigning European champion Barcelona in the first game of last Saturday’s doubleheader, taking a 2-1 lead early in the second half before Barcelona rallied to win the third-place game, 3-2.

On the same day in Louisville, Ky., Racing Louisville sent a message of its own by edging German champion Bayern Munich on penalty kicks in the final of a tournament that also featured the Chicago Red Stars and French champion Paris Saint-Germain.

The message wasn’t just about the NWSL’s standing compared with that European leagues that are spending more money on international talent. Its most important facet was aimed at the NWSL itself.

The last time the league faced the long part of the women’s soccer calendar when the U.S. national team doesn’t play in a major tournament, the league was finishing its fourth season. It still had a lot of steps to take just to get on solid footing, even as the only pro women’s soccer league in U.S. history to have reached a fourth campaign.

» READ MORE: A look back at the issues the NWSL faced after the 2016 Olympics

Now the NWSL is the first league to reach that multiyear gap for a second time. It has solidified many of its foundations, and could solidify more through an inaugural collective bargaining agreement with the NWSL Players Association.

So it’s a good time to have higher aspirations — beyond winning league games and selling tickets and merchandise off U.S. stars. Some teams, such as the Thorns, already view their operations through a global lens. But not enough of the league does yet.

The ICC’s role

Relevent Sports, the company that runs the ICC, has stepped up to help. Sure, Relevent is a private entity with its own motivations. But the organization genuinely cares about women’s soccer, and knows it runs a unique event.

Until FIFA launches a women’s Club World Cup — which a slew of players and coaches called for last week — the ICC can fairly claim to be the pinnacle tournament of women’s club soccer. This year, it added an important reason: participation based on merit, not invitations.

The first two women’s ICCs, held in 2018 and 2019, had fields that were handpicked. This year, all four teams were recent trophy winners. The Dash won last year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, and the Thorns won last year’s Fall Series and this year’s Challenge Cup. Lyon won last year’s UEFA Champions League title, and Barcelona won this year’s.

It might not always be easy for merit-based selection to work with European teams that come to the U.S. in their preseasons (and the tournament is expected to stay a summer event). But when it comes to NWSL participants, Relevent Sports CEO Danny Sillman intends to keep them based on merit.

“We will continue to build a tournament and a format that’s based on qualification, and we know that the fan bases will support that process in terms of rooting for their teams to be able to play in this,” he said.

» READ MORE: Lyon's Catarina Macario is on her way to becoming the USWNT's next great playmaker

Susie Fiore, the WICC’s chief organizer, said merit will remain a principle even as the tournament expands in the future.

“I want to go to six teams next year — it will be four European and two [from the] NWSL,” Fiore said, noting that discussions with European teams are already underway. “Most likely the winners of the top four European leagues: English, Spanish, German, French.”

The NWSL participants would be this year’s playoff champion and one of the other major trophy winners, either the Challenge Cup or the Shield for the best regular-season record. If one team sweeps them all (which the Thorns could), a decision on who comes next would be made at the time.

Each NWSL club would host a three-team pod to start the tournament, with the winners advancing to a final at either one of those venues or a third site.

‘Play for something more’

Portland star Crystal Dunn, who was on the North Carolina Courage squad that played in the first two ICCs, is on board with the setup.

“It incentivizes people to want to do their very best each season, and gives them an opportunity to play for something more than just a NWSL Shield and a championship,” said Dunn, who also played in the UEFA Champions League during her season with Chelsea in 2017-18.

Houston manager James Clarkson called it “hugely important” that NWSL teams have to qualify.

“That is why we are so honored to be part of the tournament, and fortunately we did earn the right to be here,” he said. “It is another incentive to want to go out, compete, and try to be successful. And to challenge yourself against the best teams in the world is vitally important as we continue to progress.”

The NWSL will expand by two teams next year, bringing in Los Angeles and San Diego clubs with big names and big ambitions. That will make the competition for ICC berths tougher. We’ll see how many teams rise to the challenge.

» READ MORE: Crystal Dunn’s time is now to be one of American soccer’s top stars