When North Carolina Football Club owner Steve Malik announced that the club’s new women’s squad would be called the North Carolina Courage, some longtime Triangle soccer fans felt a flutter in their stomachs where 14 years ago they had received a kick to the gut.
From 2001 to 2003, the Carolina Courage was the area’s first and only top-tier professional soccer team. The team and the league it played in, the Women’s United Soccer Association, were born from the flurry of excitement for women’s soccer that followed the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 1999 World Cup victory.
Despite that buzz and the Courage’s on-field successes, which included winning the WUSA’s Founders Cup in 2002, the club shut down after the 2003 season. The WUSA’s sponsor and fan revenues hadn’t met expectations, and the league was forced to fold.
Starting in April, the North Carolina Courage will bring professional women’s soccer back to the Triangle when it plays its first game at WakeMed Soccer Park. The original Courage paid for $1.7 million of that facility, according to a 2003 report by The News & Observer.
Once the club decided it wanted to purchase a woman’s team, it was nearly a forgone conclusion that it would be called the Courage, said Curt Johnson, North Carolina Football Club’s president and general manager. The new logo takes several design cues from its predecessor, though it notably features a lioness rather than the maned male lion in the original.
“A lot of people have very fond memories of that team,” Johnson said. “The league ultimately did not succeed, but the team was successful, and they have a fantastic player history, including some of the great female players of that time. It was something we felt strongly about keeping.”
In January, Malik announced that North Carolina Football Club (formerly the Carolina RailHawks) had bought the Western New York Flash and planned to move the team to North Carolina, fresh off winning its first National Women’s Soccer League Championship. This week, it was announced that Paul Riley, the Flash’s championship-winning head coach, would staying on with the North Carolina Courage.
The purchase is part of Malik’s larger ambitions for the club. He wants to secure an expansion spot in Major League Soccer, the top men’s soccer league in the United States. He submitted a bid Tuesday, which will compete against bids from 11 other cities for one of four new teams.
Building a following
Kelly Glendenning, 23, was once a Courage “superfan.” She still has a jersey from the team’s first incarnation hanging on her office wall. As an 8-year-old, Glendenning even dressed up as former Courage and USWNT striker Danielle Fotopoulos for Halloween.
“That was right when I was getting serious about soccer,” she said. “And when I would see those women athletes, I wanted to be them.”
Her father was quoted in The News & Observer in 2003 when it was announced the Courage would be shut down. He said his daughter “just burst into tears.”
“Her home page on our computer was (the Courage’s) website, and she was at a loss,” he said. “She didn’t know what her home page was going to be anymore.”
After graduating from UNC with a journalism degree last spring, Glendenning took a job as a communications manager with the RailHawks, which was renamed North Carolina Football Club in December. She had no idea she’d be working for her beloved childhood team six months later.
“When I heard that the team was coming back, my heart was just so full,” she said. “Girls in this area, who are the age I was then, they’ll get to have that same experience I did.”
Glendenning is just one of the team’s fans who fell in love with the team during its humble beginnings.
The original Courage didn’t have a stadium its first year. The team played at the University of North Carolina’s Fetzer Field – where the championship-winning college team played – and practiced wherever they could before moving into what was then called SAS Soccer Park for the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
For the Courage’s Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, who played for UNC’s longtime coach Anson Dorrance, it was tough to go from playing for a world-beating dynasty at UNC to playing on the same field for fewer fans.
“We felt like we were this low-level team in this low-level league,” she said. “Then we got our own locker room, our own front office, and it felt so much more legitimate. When we got to Cary, we knew what it was like not to have a home, so we were really appreciative.”
The Courage eventually gained fan support in the early 2000s, but the team – the front office and players alike – had to work for it.
“We would train, but part of our job was to promote this league and this team,” said Roberts Sahaydak, who now coaches at the University of South Florida. “I have great memories of us going all around the community in Cary, going into coffee shops. I remember getting this feeling that people were on board, that they were excited.”
By 2002, attendance averaged about 5,800 fans per game.
Jarrett Campbell was one of those fans. He moved to Cary in the late 1990s and connected with the Courage and the Triangle soccer scene early on.
“(The Courage) were great on the field, and there was great attendance,” said Campbell, who is now president of NCFC supporters group Triangle Soccer Fanatics. “The league folded through no fault of our own. We looked around and said, ‘What happened here?’ It was really disappointing.”
Roberts Sahaydak, like Campbell, said she and her teammates are thrilled to hear of the team’s revival, just as they had collectively mourned when it folded. All that time spent promoting the team around the Triangle had forged meaningful bonds among her teammates and the Triangle soccer community.
“It was absolutely devastating,” Roberts Sahaydak said when she learned the Courage would be shut down. “It was one of those things where you’ll always remember where you were when it happened. After the ’99 World Cup, we were told that we were going to have big investors, that there was this plan. We were so excited. It was like our dreams were coming true.”
Reasons for hope
Both incarnations of the Courage were founded in the afterglow of World Cup wins.
But Johnson said the steadily growing and generation-spanning culture of support for the women’s game will help the Courage stick around this time.
And Thursday, the National Women’s Soccer League and A+E Networks announced a new partnership – NWSL Media – in which Lifetime will become an official broadcast partner. Games will start airing in April every Saturday. In the past, games have aired on YouTube with select games on FOX Sports and its affiliates.
Plus, the National Women’s Soccer League is recognized as being in better financial shape than the WUSA, which the NWSL has already outlasted in its four years of existence.
“The business model of the NWSL mirrors that of Major League Soccer, and they’ve taken some of those best practices, like controls on spending and a single-entity system,” Johnson said. “Everyone understands that the team needs to be stable for a long period of time to truly thrive.”
But that stability comes at the price of something irreplaceable about the original Courage. In the early 2000s, the WUSA was essentially the only show in town, which helped it attract the world’s top talent. Stars such as UNC alumna Mia Hamm would routinely come to Cary for league games, and the Courage’s roster was full of names familiar from the international stage.
These days, a greater diversity of top-level women’s leagues worldwide has diluted U.S. leagues’ talent pools, but that hasn’t dulled the excitement of fans like Campbell, who firmly believe in Malik’s promise to make the Courage “the best pro women’s franchise in the world.”
“Steve (Malik) has done more in 15 months here than the first three owners did in nine years,” Campbell said. “He stood up in December and said he wanted to bring a women’s team to the Triangle in the next six months. He did it in one.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan