(Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

North Carolina star Merritt Mathias pleaded for Courage fans to return to the stands while recognizing the club’s fractured relationship with LGBTQIA+ fans in particular.

The 31-year-old expanded on the subject after the Courage’s loss to San Diego on Sunday. More than 6,000 fans filled WakeMed Soccer Park to see USWNT star Alex Morgan take the field for the opposing team.

“The fan support has wavered,” Mathias said. “It isn’t a coincidence that Alex Morgan is playing and there are 6,000 people that are here. Previous games, the fan support has wavered and there are reasons for that. To see the seats filled again is pretty incredible, but it can’t be because of Alex Morgan. It has to be because of what you believe in here.”

Mathias went on to speculate on the reasons for the declining fan turnout, pointing to the Courage’s fraught relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community. This offseason, Courage supporters and NWSL fans more broadly condemned the decision of the North Carolina front office to re-sign Jaelene Daniels, who has publicly opposed gay rights.

The defender had retired in 2020 after playing six seasons in the league, including four with the Courage, but she came out of retirement in December to re-sign with North Carolina. She made headlines in 2017 when she turned down a national team call-up over her refusal to wear rainbow-themed gay pride jerseys.

“I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey,” Daniels said during an appearance on “The 700 Club.”

Mathias said she recognized the pain that re-signing Daniels, among other decisions by the club, caused members of the fanbase.

“There’s been a very particular voice that has been heard in wanting to support the community. And personally, I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that in the past years,” Mathias said. “I don’t think that has been any secret. We didn’t have a Pride Night for three years, we didn’t wear a jersey. Everyone knows all these things and I think bringing back Jaelene (Daniels) was a decision made by the club and as a player who is part of the community, you have to work through those struggles but that is what a team is about.”

The Courage issued a statement back in December in response to the backlash from Daniels’s singing.

“In response to the recent news of re-signing Jaelene Daniels, we as a club acknowledge the impact this announcement has on our community,” the North Carolina Courage wrote in an open letter to fans. “We’ve spent the past few days reading your messages and reflecting on our actions. We are very sorry to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Yet despite the club’s actions and subsequent fan recoil, Mathias insists there are still plenty of players on the team that are part of the community and are looking for supporters to return to games.

“I think it is really important that we have a voice as much as the club. That there is a group here that truly, truly loves and supports and is here for the LGBTQ community,” Mathias said. “I think that is a really important message to get out there, because we definitely miss you guys. We definitely miss our fans. They are a huge reason why we were so successful for so many years.”

The North Carolina Courage have yet to win a regular-season game since claiming the Challenge Cup trophy, registering three straight losses to start their NWSL campaign.