North Carolina Courage and Europe's best club teams clash in ICC

Ada Hegerberg and many of the world's top women's soccer players will play Thursday and Sunday in the International Champions Cup. Nikola Krstic/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire

CARY, N.C. -- Few places in the world are as intertwined with women's soccer as North Carolina's Triangle, the square mileage encompassing Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. And now comes a new chapter: The North Carolina Courage and Atletico Madrid, Manchester City and Olympique Lyon bring the world here in the second edition of the Women's International Champions Cup (coverage begins on ESPN+ at 5 p.m. ET Thursday).

FIFA president Gianni Infantino named the introduction of a Club World Cup as one of his goals to grow the women's game, but unless and until that comes to fruition, the ICC stands alone in women's soccer in placing the NWSL and Europe's best on the same field.

"I think there is so much buzz around the World Cup that it's the kind of thing where we want that to carry over to the three other years of the cycle," Courage and U.S. midfielder Sam Mewis said. "And I think that a tournament like this is a great opportunity for fans to further engage women's soccer when it isn't the World Cup."

Here's a look at what is ahead in Cary.

What is this all about?

The ICC has been a summer soccer staple for most of the past decade, with many of the biggest clubs in the men's game playing one another in preseason friendlies around the globe in a loosely structured tournament format.

The women's edition debuted last year in Miami with a condensed, four-team, single-location, knockout format. Despite missing U.S. national team players because the ICC coincided with the Tournament of Nations, the Courage beat French powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon to win the event.

Who are the teams involved?

There is no qualification process for the men's or women's events. Inclusion is by invitation, but this year's field boasts serious credentials.

The Courage not only won the ICC with a depleted squad last summer but also dominated the NWSL. A league loss at Portland this past week -- with two own goals dooming North Carolina in front of the largest crowd in league history -- cost them possession of first place. But no one will bet against a team that still has the NWSL's best goal differential.

With the most star-studded roster in the sport -- the spine of the French national team is bolstered by stars from England, Germany, Japan, Norway and anywhere else deep-pocketed owner Jean-Michel Aulas cares to look -- Lyon is widely regarded as the best club team in the sport. The juggernaut has won four consecutive titles in the Champions League and 13 in a row in the French top division. Lyon outscored league opponents by 83 goals in 22 games last season.

While Barcelona has received a lot of attention for its investment in the women's game in recent years, Atletico Madrid won its third consecutive league title in Spain last season. It had an embarrassing exit in the Champions League a season ago, losing 10-0 on aggregate to German heavyweight Wolfsburg, but Atletico had eliminated Manchester City a round earlier.

It speaks to how far Manchester City has come in a short time that last season felt like something of a disappointment, with the early Champions League exit added to a second-place league finish. But City won the FA Cup in front of more than 40,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, and its expectations are to win trophies.

How much does it matter?

The ICC games are exhibitions. Teams will be able to make six substitutions. The European teams are all in various stages of preseason. Lyon begins its league season next week, but Atletico Madrid and Manchester City don't begin their campaigns until September. The Courage, with much of their roster already weary from international duty in the World Cup, is in the middle of a crowded race for both playoff spots and home-field advantage in the NWSL.

Even Courage coach Paul Riley, while singing the praises of the event and talking about how much it meant to win last year, has noted that he'll have to move his lineup around to manage the extra workload.

But these games should be far closer to tournament competition than glorified scrimmages. That starts with North Carolina tarnishing Lyon's luster ever so slightly by winning last year. The best team money can buy dominated Europe but lost to the best team in the United States.

Lyon's Lucy Bronze said Wednesday that new manager Jean-Luc Vasseur pulled the team aside at training and held up all five digits on one hand. Each one, he told them, represented a trophy the team should aspire to win this season. The ICC, right along with the likes of the Champions League, was one of the five targets.

"We want to win," Lyon's Alex Greenwood said. "It's that [simple]: We want to win."

Events in France earlier this summer are the other part of that equation. Greenwood and several Lyon teammates were part of the England team that lost to the U.S. women in the World Cup semifinals, as were Manchester City captain Steph Houghton and others on that team. Wendie Renard, Eugenie Le Sommer and other Lyon stars were part of the French team that lost a glorious World Cup quarterfinal in Paris. Atletico Madrid helped fill the roster of the Spanish team that lost to the United States in the round of 32.

For all the progress in Europe in recent years, including the growth of club teams such as those in Cary for the ICC, a lot of those players are getting really tired of losing to Americans.

"Especially after the World Cup," Greenwood said of the desire to win this weekend. "The standard over here is brilliant. The [NWSL] speaks for itself. It's quite tight at the moment. The Americans are totally different to Europe, totally different. But it's a challenge that we need, a challenge we'll accept and hopefully one we'll win."

Who are the players to watch in Lyon-Atletico Madrid (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)?

Lucy Bronze, Lyon: It's a homecoming of sorts for Bronze, who won an NCAA title in her lone season at the University of North Carolina in 2009. England manager Phil Neville called her the best player in the world this summer, and it isn't easy to prove him wrong. Lyon's dominance leaves her free to rampage forward as a right back. It's hard to imagine a new manager reining her in.

Ada Hegerberg, Lyon: Not even the World Cup offered fans a chance to watch the Ballon d'Or winner. The Norwegian standout's decision to sit out that tournament has been well chronicled, but a new club season means attention will again shift to what she does on the field. The tip of the spear for Lyon, she's closing in on 150 goals for the club despite turning 24 only weeks ago.

Toni Duggan, Atletico Madrid: The England international left Barcelona after reaching the Champions League final a season ago. She scored 29 goals in 72 games over two seasons with Barcelona. Despite an injury-marred World Cup, she should be nearing her peak at 28 years old.

Ludmila, Atletico Madrid: Fans around the globe will remember Marta challenging the next generation to rise to the occasion after Brazil was eliminated from the World Cup. Well, the 24-year-old Brazilian forward is part of that future and is getting the training environment she needs in Spain. Her play helped bounce Manchester City from the Champions League.

Who are the players to watch in Manchester City-North Carolina (ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET)?

Janine Beckie, Manchester City: Without England World Cup standout Ellen White this week (along with goalkeeper Karen Bardsley) because of injury, Manchester City needs goals. Enter Beckie, the American-born Canadian international. Manager Nick Cushing talked about the challenges Beckie has faced adapting to a more tactical game since she moved to England last season, but she's well-versed in the style of play North Carolina will try to force Thursday.

Georgia Stanway, Manchester City: Long touted as a prospect, Stanway is now 20 years old and delivering more than potential. She's a name to know for the England teams that the U.S. women will have to contend with in 2023 and 2027 -- not to mention in next summer's Olympics.

Jessica McDonald, North Carolina: She has won NCAA, NWSL, ICC and World Cup titles, something accomplished by only her and Heather O'Reilly.

Sam Mewis, North Carolina: With almost every word she says, let alone every game she plays, Mewis looks more and more like a future captain of the U.S. national team. How much she plays remains to be seen. Riley limited her minutes over the weekend. But after she missed this event last year while on international duty, this is a chance to prolong a life-changing summer.