North Carolina arguably has one of the richest traditions of women’s soccer in the United States. Championships, national team players and excellence is not just habitual, but it is expected from the state that claims Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Heather O’Reilly as its own.
Starting in the early 1980’s, North Carolina established itself as a women’s soccer powerhouse. By the 1990’s, the nation’s best players came from North Carolina Universities. 2000 and beyond saw the first ever women’s professional team in the state, and today, the highest level of women’s soccer returns as the North Carolina Courage.
From the top down, North Carolina has produced dozens of local, national and international legends.
US Women’s National Team:
North Carolina claims three former US Women’s National Team coaches: Anson Dorrance (current UNC Women’s Soccer coach) from 1986-1994, Lauren Gregg (former UNC women’s soccer player) in 1997,2000 and April Heinrichs (former UNC women’s soccer standout and USWNT captain) from 2000-2004.
Since 1991, there have been at least two former North Carolina collegiate players on the roster for the Women’s World Cup. Over 55 North Carolina collegiate players have made US international game appearances.
Recent US Women’s National team players with North Carolina collegiate and profaessional ties include Meghan Klingenberg, Heather O’Reilly, Crystal Dunn, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Jessica McDonald and Kealia Ohai.
NCAA Women’s Soccer:
North Carolina is home to the winningest program in US soccer history, the North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC has won 22 out of 36 NCAA Championships and 38 ACC Championships. The Tar Heels boast 70 first-team All Americans, the most in NCAA history. Five former UNC players are in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
North Carolina State University has produced three USWNT players and most notably housed current USWNT Head Coach Jill Ellis as an assistant coach from 1988-1990. The Wolfpack has made 12 NCAA tournament appearances and produced seven NCAA All-Americans. Former Wolfpacker Charmaine Hooper scored 71 goals in 128 appearances with the Canadian National Team during her impressive 20 year international career (1986-2006). She is regarded as one of the greatest Canadian players of all time. Laura Kerrigan, an NSCAA first-team All-American who played for NC State from 1985-1989, stayed in the area and coached the Wolfpack starting in 1997. Since then, she has transitioned to coaching high school soccer at Cary High School in NC.
Carla Overbeck has kept her collegiate, professional and coaching career in North Carolina. The former USWNT captain played for UNC, the Carolina Courage and is the current Duke University women’s assistant coach. Duke has made nine NCAA Tournament appearances and produced nine NCAA All-Americans.
Wake Forest University, led by Tony da Luz, father of longtime Carolina RailHawks (now North Carolina FC) player Austin da Luz, has made 18 NCAA College Cup Appearances and produced four NCAA All-Americans.
Professional Women’s Soccer:
North Carolina’s former professional women’s team upheld the state’s champions legacy as it won the Founders Cup in 2002. The Carolina Courage played in North Carolina from 2001-2003 before the WUSA folded in 2003. The Courage played at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill in their inaugural season before moving to WakeMed Soccer Park (then SAS Soccer Park) in 2002. Notable former Carolina Courage players include current Duke assistant coach and former USWNT captain Carla Overbeck, former USWNT member Danielle Fotopoulos, and Fox Sports analyst and former USWNT member Danielle Slaton.
Excellence in Youth Programs:
North Carolina youth clubs have produced hundreds of collegiate and professional women’s soccer players. Capital Area Soccer League in Raleigh, NC is one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the nation with over 700 teams. Local standout Casey Nogueira grew up playing for CASL and went on to become a standout for UNC and played for the US Women’s National Team. Former Triangle Futbol Club player Indi Cowie has gone on to become a world-known freestyle juggler after playing and coaching for UNC in 2013.
The North Carolina Courage looks forward to continuing this legacy of excellence and create history of our own.
THEY’RE FINALLY HOME. 2017 NC COURAGE SEASON REVIEW
From the first-person perspective of former NC Courage Communications Manager Kelly Glendenning
On October 31, 2002, I dressed up as my childhood hero for Halloween.
Danielle Fotopoulus was fresh off a WUSA Founder’s Cup Championship, and my adoration of this U.S. Women’s National Teamer was at an all time high. I had to be her for Halloween. Like HAD TO.
I was dressed head to toe in a royal blue Carolina Courage kit, even though it was 40 degrees outside, and my mom made me wear a reflector necklace. Regardless, I didn’t let it ruin my vibe.
I got to spend the spooky evening as the starting forward of the coolest soccer team that my nine-year-old self could ever dream of. I was stoked and legitimately pretended I was her when I strutted up to the neighbor’s door in my shin guards and cleats to ask for candy. Best day ever.
Fast forward eleven months. I’ll always remember September 15, 2003. Worst day ever.
The WUSA announced that after three seasons, it would be suspending operations. I didn’t know exactly what this meant, but what I did know was that my team was gone. I sobbed profusely as my parents tucked me into bed.
Shortly after the WUSA’s announcement, the local newspapers picked up the story, and one paper interviewed my dad who is a longtime Cary resident, high school coach and father of two girls.
“I like to see every sport and every gender represented equally,” the News & Observer quoted my dad saying in 2003. “Another opportunity has been taken away from women to be a professional athlete.”
I was so confused. North Carolina was a historic hotbed for women’s soccer. I couldn’t understand how the Carolina Courage could just be gone in the blink of an eye when they were So. Freaking. Good.
Cary was the Courage’s home. They belonged here and the whole community felt it. Something great had to come to an end.
The next 14 years were filled with more soccer success for the state. After all, North Carolina is home to the best women’s college programs in the country, and our youth clubs are second to none. We weren’t deprived by any means. Soccer never left NC from 2003-2017, but boy, something was missing.
On January 9, 2017, it all came back.
Media and community officials gathered in the East Suites of WakeMed Soccer Park on a cold winter morning awaiting the announcement that then-NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, Governor Roy Cooper and NCFC club owner Steve Malik were to make.
The North Carolina Courage was to be the NWSL’s newest team, and they were to start playing in April.
As I stood to reveal the Courage logo for our press conference guests to see, I struggled to hold back the emotions.
I was elated that more young athletes would get to experience what I had at nine years old as a season ticket holder for the Carolina Courage. Soccer fanatics from across the state would once again flood WakeMed Soccer Park to watch the best female athletes in the world go to work.
In April, the 2017 NWSL Season started. We knew we had a good team; we had acquired the league’s reigning Champions. Owner Steve Malik had declared that we were going to be the best women’s professional soccer team in the world. I’m sure a handful of people believed him.
That prediction, however, would come to pass. Every time the Courage reached a milestone, we became less surprised, and more impressed.
The NC Courage started with a win on the road in Week 1 against the Washington Spirit. Then they came home and opened up with a win over the Portland Thorns in front of a massive 6,298-person crowd. Brazilian Debinha laid out a bicycle kick to start the second half, and the entire stadium roared. What’s up Courage Country.
Then the Courage won again, and again. 4-0 in the first 4 weeks. That’s got to be a record.
Head coach Paul Riley never focused on records or results. He was honest from the beginning that the season was all about improvement each week, not about outcomes. Stay the COuRse.
Four wins turned into 16 wins in the regular season, and the Courage clinched the NWSL Shield. That’s definitely a record.
Ashley Hatch scored her first professional goal against FC Kansas City on June 3, 2017. And she kept scoring. And didn’t stop. Seven goals in her rookie season. Junkyard Dogs.
As the final week of the regular season rolled around, we looked up, and our team was in first place, headed to the NWSL Playoffs. The buzz was back. That intoxicating feeling we had felt in years past that came from being the best had emerged again.
But the Chicago Red Stars were coming to town for the final NC Courage home game of 2017, and they were the only team we hadn’t beaten all year. Underdogs.
90 minutes went by with no goals from either side until a corner from Abby Dahlkemper found Jess McDonald and then, like a movie script, fell to the feet of Denise O’Sullivan. We’re going to the ‘ship.
To conclude their inaugural season, the NC Courage were packing their bags and heading to Orlando for the NWSL Championship. Many of the players had been in this position before. They’d won the whole thing with the Western New York Flash a year ago. Could it be destiny?
45 minutes and no score. 45 more minutes and one score, but not for us.
It was the end of the season, but not the end of the race. No Finish Line.
While the Courage didn’t get the preferred result in the NWSL Championship against the Portland Thorns, they laid the foundation for seasons to come. They’ve given fans a reason to return to Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park for 2018 and brought back the joy that is the beautiful game as interpreted by the feet of women of amazing strength and skill.
The NC Courage has always lived in our state. It’s lived in the dynasty of women’s NCAA National Championships. It’s lived in the sold-out U.S. Women’s National Team friendly matches. It’s existed in the thousands upon thousands of youth players with dreams so palpable that they actually decide to go for them.
If we’re going by the book, Day 1 of the NC Courage was January 9, 2017.
But we’re the NC Courage, so we don’t go by the book.
Day 1 of the NC Courage cannot and should not be placed on a calendar. 2017 was technically our inaugural season, but it didn’t really feel like it.
The NC Courage didn’t move to Cary on January 9, 2017. That’s the day they finally came back home.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK
WakeMed Soccer Park is one of the premier soccer complexes in the United States and is the home of North Carolina FC and 2019 NWSL Champion NC Courage. It opened in 2002 as the home of the Women’s United Soccer Association’s Carolina Courage.
The North Carolina Football Club announced a sponsorship deal with Sahlen’s Packaging Company on March 31, 2017 that renamed the 10,000 seat stadium to Sahlen’s Stadium and made the Buffalo-based meat packing company the exclusive hot dog provider of the stadium. The Sahlen family previously owned the Western New York Flash.
The soccer complex consists of a purpose-built, soccer-specific main stadium, two lighted practice fields built to the same specifications as the stadium field, and four additional practice fields. Fields 1 (main stadium), 2, and 3 are all FIFA international regulation size (120 yards x 75 yards).
WakeMed Soccer Park opened in May 2002 as State Capital Soccer Park. It sits on 150 acres on the eastern edge of Cary that the State of North Carolina has leased to Wake County. Money to build the soccer park came from $14.5 million in county-wide hotel room and prepared food and beverage taxes. The Town of Cary assumed responsibility for operations and maintenance in 2004 from the Capital Area Soccer League.
On January 1, 2008, WakeMed Health & Hospitals, a private, not-for-profit health care organization based in Raleigh, acquired the rights to name the park from the Town of Cary. SAS, a Cary-based software company, previously held the complex’s naming rights.
The complex also sports a full-length, nationally-recognized cross country course.
In addition to serving as the home of the North Carolina FC and NC Courage, WakeMed Soccer Park has also been the host of men’s and women’s ACC soccer tournaments, men’s and women’s NCAA College Cups, as well as U.S. Men’s and Women’s national team friendlies.