Soccer

NC Courage brings NWSL to Triangle in 2017

Posted January 9

— The Research Triangle region of North Carolina has long been one of the country’s most fertile hotbeds for women’s soccer.

Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina Tar Heels has won 22 NCAA championships, appeared in 27 NCAA Women’s College Cups. produced nine Hermann Trophy winners, and boasts six members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Duke University has three Women’s College Cup appearances, including two since 2011, while NC State has earned two Cup berths.

However, the high-water mark of the region’s star-crossed history with professional women’s soccer was the fleeting three years that the Carolina Courage played in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-2003. For two years, the Courage’s home ground was SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

SAS Soccer Park is now named WakeMed Soccer Park, where Monday afternoon, the Courage came home.

At a Monday press conference, North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik formally announced that he has acquired the Western New York Flash, reigning champions of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and is relocating the team to the Triangle. The club’s new brand is the North Carolina Courage, and it will begin play in the 2017 NWSL season, which kicks off in mid-April.

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, NCFC President/General Manager Curt Johnson, and new North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper were present at today’s media event.

Monday’s announcement is the culmination of Malik’s efforts to return women’s professional soccer to this area, which began after he purchased the Carolina RailHawks (now NCFC) men’s pro team in October 2015. Malik, who played high school soccer while growing up in Kinston, N.C., is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a staunch supporter of Tar Heels athletics.

“We’re going to have the best pro women’s franchise in the world,” Malik said. “We’re going to do that on the field, in the stands, and do it in the community. We’re so blessed to have so many national team players [on our team]. They’re going to be beacons in our community, and beacons for all North Carolinians.”

Malik publicly supported Cooper during the recent gubernatorial election. Cooper touted this event as his first economic development announcement, referencing the state’s college women’s soccer tradition, including his alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill.

“The name of this team is apt, because Steve Malik has shown courage in bringing this team and doing what he has done for soccer in North Carolina,” Cooper said.

The 10-team NWSL, founded in 2012, is the first-division U.S. women’s pro league, administered by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The majority of the U.S. Women’s National Team competes in the NWSL, including Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Ali Kreiger, and Tobin Heath. Heather O’Reilly, who recently retired from international soccer, is a member of the NWSL’s FC Kansas City.

The WNY Flash was founded in 2008 as a member of the USL’s W-League, and it’s among the eight charter members of the NWSL, winning the league’s Supporters Shield in its inaugural 2013 season. The Flash won four championships in four different leagues, including the 2016 NWSL championship. It was the league’s highest scoring team last year, netting 40 goals.

Five members of the Flash were recently called into the USWNT’s January camp—Jaelene Hinkle, Samantha Mewis, Taylor Smith, (former Tar Heel) Jessica McDonald, and league MVP Lynn Williams.

However, the Flash saw their share of setbacks. The club’s front office and practice facilities were in Elma, New York, while the team played matches at Rhinos Stadium in Rochester, over 70 miles away. Last July, the Flash earned notoriety when it moved a home match to Frontier Field in Rochester, a baseball diamond with compressed configuration that only allowed a 58-yard wide pitch.

Plush said the sale of the WNY Flash from Joe Sahlen and his family to Malik developed quickly following the finale to the 2016 season.

“The Sahlens, who have given so much to the sport generally, realized it was an opportunity for a change,” Plush said. “Certainly they looked in the western New York marketplace first, but the opportunity for us to connect with Steve came up, and we had already identified the Triangle area as a fantastic area for a club. And it accelerated from there.”

This is the first relocation of a NWSL club, and Maik is the first new NWSL owner not affiliated with a Major League Soccer team since the NWSL’s initial formation.

“We’re thrilled, on behalf of everyone at the NWSL, to be here in Cary and Raleigh-Durham,” Plush said. “It’s an exciting time for our sport, and to be in this great community with its outstanding soccer pedigree.”

The Courage must hit the ground running. The 2017 NWSL College Draft is this Thursday in Los Angeles—Johnson and other Courage staffers will attend. The club holds the second and seventh picks in the first round, as well as the 18th pick in the second round. Among the most highly rated draft prospects is Duke All-American and Raleigh native Christina Gibbons, who was also called into the USWNT’s January camp. However, Johnson says the club may look to make trades in an effort to bolster the team’s defense.

The existing NCFC front office and staff will head the Courage effort, augmented by additional staffers that will hired over the coming months. Johnson, the president and general manager of NCFC, will serve in the same capacities for NC Courage. He said Flash head coach Paul Riley visited North Carolina last week, and the club “will make a decision in the next couple of weeks” regarding the team’s manager for 2017.

The Courage’s marketing effort must quickly ramp up. Over its three seasons in Chapel Hill and Cary from 2001-2003, the former Carolina Courage averaged over 5,600 per match. Tickets for the NC Courage’s first season, as Malik, Cooper and Plush all repeatedly said today, “are on sale.”

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