When the International Champions Cup introduced a women’s tournament in 2018, it was the first time women’s soccer had anything like the FIFA Club World Cup on the men’s side.
Before that, players could transfer between the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States and professional leagues in Europe, but the top club teams in the world didn’t have the chance to battle for superiority. And as major European soccer clubs invested more in their women’s teams and the NWSL’s own talent pool deepened, interest in a cross-league competition only grew.
Three years after the inaugural event, the ICC again will bring four of the best club teams in women’s soccer together for a two-round, friendly tournament beginning Wednesday in Portland. The teams that qualified — the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona — each won championships in their respective leagues and competitions in 2020.
“As long as we don’t have a FIFA World Cup for clubs like they do for the men’s, it’s hard to say which teams would actually qualify from Europe and which teams would qualify from the States,” said Barcelona forward Caroline Graham Hansen, who will be playing in her first ICC.
“So in my head, this is a fantastic tournament for us to test ourselves against some really, really strong teams, maybe the best teams.”
The NWSL, now in its ninth season, was long considered the deepest women’s professional soccer league. It included nearly all of the players on the U.S. women’s national team, the winners of four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, as well as many star players from other country’s national teams.
That sentiment has begun to shift in recent years as European clubs have developed more homegrown talent and attracted some of the USWNT’s best players. Just this past year, four players who represented the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics competed in the Premier League for the 2020-21 season.
“It’s a different culture and football that everybody looks to in terms of how they play because the U.S. soccer women have won everything, the last World Cups,” Hansen said. “For us to go over there and be a part of this tournament is a fantastic way for us to keep growing our game in different parts of the world.”
Thorns forward Simone Charley feels similarly about the European teams coming to Portland this week.
Lyon has the most storied women’s program in Europe, having won seven UEFA Champions League titles and the most recent ICC in 2019. Barcelona, meanwhile, is on the rise after winning its first Champions League title in dominant fashion this year.
The Thorns will face one of them Saturday, either in the championship or third-place game, depending on their result against the Houston Dash on Wednesday. Charley is looking forward to the challenge of playing a team as tactically sound as Barcelona or Lyon.
“One of the things we’ve been working on a lot is growing tactically and being able to read the game during the game instead of having to rely on halftime or after-game adjustments,” Charley said. “So not having played these teams before or not necessarily knowing what to expect, it’s going to challenge us to read the game and to pay attention tactically and technically.”
Charley wouldn’t go so far as to say the ICC will crown the best women’s club team in the world, but she did acknowledge the extra motivation the Thorns have going into the tournament.
“I do think it is a battle of the leagues, for sure,” she said. “There are two different playing styles that will be out there on the pitch, so I do think there’ll be a little chip on our shoulder, wanting to prove superiority of who’s better. In that way, I think we take it personally. We want to prove ourselves on that stage.”
The Thorns, winners of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and currently in first place in the league standings, have two more months of the regular season to go before the playoffs. They have a handful of star players returning to their roster after competing in the Olympics and Charley is having a breakout season of her own, tied for third in the league with five goals. The experience the Thorns gain from the ICC will only help their NWSL title pursuit in the fall.
On the other side, Barcelona will have two weeks between the ICC and their season opener in the Primera División, which they’ve won two years in a row.
Like Charley, Hansen won’t call the exhibition tournament a crowning moment in women’s soccer, but that doesn’t take away from her intentions in Portland this week.
“When we go out there as a team, we always compete to win, and I know that the teams we are meeting are doing the same,” Hansen said. “So it’s going to be really good for the supporters to watch.”