Lucy Bronze of England, shown in June during the Women's World Cup, is among the elite players at the Women’s International Champions Cup in North Carolina this week. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Reporter

CARY, N.C. — Samantha Mewis and Lucy Bronze are among soccer’s best female players, yet except for the World Cup and Olympics and perhaps a periodic friendly between their respective national teams, they would not come close to crossing paths.

Mewis, a U.S. national team midfielder, plies her trade for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League. Her English counterpart plays full time for French power Olympique Lyonnais.

Same sport, different circles.

But as the women’s branch of the game grows, so do the efforts to put the top players on the same field more often, not just on global occasions involving national teams.

Here in the Raleigh suburbs, five weeks removed from the conclusion of a terrific World Cup, Mewis, Bronze and about three dozen others representing 11 of the 24 national teams in France this summer have gathered for the second Women’s International Champions Cup.

The four-team showcase features three domestic trophy holders (North Carolina, Lyonnais and Atletico Madrid) and a runner-up (Manchester City). Lyonnais is also the four-time defending European champion.

In Thursday’s first semifinal, Wendie Renard’s header off a corner kick in second-half stoppage time lifted Lyonnais past Atletico, 1-0.

The second game between North Carolina and Manchester City was delayed for more than an hour in the second half by lightning. After play resumed in the 76th minute, the Courage drew even on McKenzie Meehan’s goal in the 84th and won it, 2-1, on Jessica McDonald’s spectacular run in stoppage time.

The third-place match and final are Sunday on ESPN platforms.

The European sides are in preseason; the Courage is two-thirds through the campaign of the NWSL, which, top to bottom, is regarded as the best in the world.

Bringing established teams to the United States not only allows the Courage to measure itself against elite foes (and vice versa) but helps fill the void between major tournaments involving national teams by exposing U.S. audiences to the mostly unknown club side of women’s soccer.

“There is so much buzz around the World Cup, it’s the kind of thing where we want that to carry over into the three other years of the cycle,” Mewis said. “A tournament like this is a great opportunity for fans to further engage in women’s soccer when it isn’t the World Cup.”

Top European teams collide annually in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, but for the Courage and its NWSL brethren, games against foreign opponents are rare.

Conversely, teams on the men’s first-tier circuits collide annually in official and unofficial events. On Wednesday, for instance, MLS champion Atlanta United defeated Mexican power Club America, 3-2, in the Campeones Cup before 40,128 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

FIFA has sponsored a Club World Cup for men since 2000 and suggested a female version in the near future amid the women’s rise this summer.

“A lot of the teams and people involved in the World Cup said they wanted to carry on the success of the World Cup because there was so much support — the [TV] audiences, the crowds, everything was unbelievable,” Bronze said. "It was something we want to, need to, carry on into club tournaments.

“Coming to America, it’s a good opportunity [for U.S. fans] to see the club side of Europe, go up against each other, and to grow the game in a different way.”

Growth in women’s soccer has been sporadic, peaking exponentially every four years at World Cups, carrying into the Olympics on a smaller scale a year later, then settling for varying degrees of support on the pro circuit.

“Now the task is how you manage to keep that type of attention for the rest of the year,” said Ada Hegerberg, Lyonnais’s Norwegian star.

In the past year, however, the game has enjoyed a breakthrough, particularly in Europe. Aside from blossoming interest in the World Cup, some clubs and leagues have gained traction.

Wealthy organizations, such as Manchester City and Barcelona, have upgraded their women’s programs, and Manchester United and Real Madrid are finally coming around.

Since the World Cup ended, the NWSL has enjoyed an attendance bump in most of the nine markets, including Washington.

For those involved in the game, the key to growth is drawing attention for competitions other than World Cups, Olympics and victory tours. (The champion Americans will play again Aug. 29 in Philadelphia before a crowd on pace to approach 50,000.)

The pathway is through the club scene: getting the public to care about the local team and exposing them to talent abroad.

The tournament here is in its second year; last summer, in Miami, the Courage defeated Lyonnais in the final. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain also competed. Crowds were sparse.

This time, ICC organizers turned to a host team rather than a neutral site. Attendance was 5,436 on Thursday and should exceed 7,000 on Sunday.

There are plans to expand the event next year to eight teams (four from NWSL, four from Europe) in two venues, East and West. Several markets are under consideration, said Brendan Doyle, senior vice president of Relevent Sports, which runs the men’s and women’s ICC.

Portland, which averages almost 20,000 for NWSL matches, would be a prime candidate.

“It’s really important for the women’s game to grow to have these big events — not just the World Cup, not just the Olympics,” North Carolina Coach Paul Riley said. “I hope [the ICC] goes to eight teams, to 16 teams, to 32 teams. It’s a valuable lesson for us.”

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