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Led by Emily Fox and Denise O’Sullivan, new-look NC Courage still stacked with World Cup talent

 Denise O'Sullivan and Emily Fox -- both of whom are set to play in the World Cup -- play for ton June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Denise O'Sullivan and Emily Fox -- both of whom are set to play in the World Cup -- play for the Courage on June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.

Long before Emily Fox was a defender for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League, and before she was the No. 1 overall pick in the NWSL Draft, and before she was an All-ACC standout at UNC-Chapel Hill, all she dreamed of was playing in the World Cup.

For Fox, wearing a kit covered in the stars-and-stripes and representing her country on the sport’s biggest stage was always the top goal. Whenever the World Cup rolled around every four years, Fox would be glued to the television. She remembers having to practically pick her jaw up off the floor in 2015 as she watched Meghan Klingenberg make a heroic goal-line save in the 77th minute — deflecting a shot away with her head — to preserve a draw for the Americans against Sweden in the group stage.

“Especially as a defender, it’s one of those things where you know it’s huge,” Fox said recently, recalling the play. She was 17 that summer, as the U.S. won the World Cup for the first time since 1999.

Soon, Fox might be in a position to make her own mark on the tournament. The 25-year-old from Ashburn, Virginia, is one of 23 players named to the U.S. women’s national team for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. To say that she is ecstatic to play for the USWNT as it seeks its third straight World Cup title — and fifth overall — would be a massive understatement.

“This is all the way up there. This is it, in terms of the stage for soccer,” Fox said. “For me, obviously, the biggest goal was making the roster. Now it’s like, ‘How can I help the team win?’ What can I do to help the team be the best that they can?”

Despite changes, Courage still armed with World Cup-quality talent

The NC Courage starting lineup poses for a photo before their match on June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
The NC Courage starting lineup poses for a photo before their match on June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.

Like they did in 2019, the Courage are sending more than half of a starting lineup to the World Cup. But this team looks much different than it did four years ago, when it sent seven players to the World Cup in France that summer before regrouping to win the NWSL title. Among the players on that squad were four Americans who helped the U.S. win in France — Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper and Crystal Dunn.

Since then, there have been changes. The Courage brought in new investors to its ownership group. There’s a new head coach, with Sean Nahas stepping in after Paul Riley was fired in 2021 following claims of sexual coercion made against him by former non-Courage players. Each of those seven women who went to the 2019 World Cup are no longer with the team, moving on through free agency or trades. And of course, like the rest of the world, the club grappled with the pandemic and all the hurdles that came with it.

But the common thread between the 2019 and 2023 squads is that, as the eve of the World Cup approaches, the Courage are playing at their very best. As of July 12, the Courage are at the top of the NWSL standings with an 8-5-2 record and 26 points. The Courage have seen a slight uptick in fan attendance this year too, averaging about 4,800 supporters per game — a 6% increase from last season.

Fox will be joined on the U.S. national team by goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Courage captain and midfielder Denise O’Sullivan will be representing the Republic of Ireland, Kerolin Nicoli will play for Brazil, and forwards Rikki Madsen and Mille Gejl have been called up to Denmark’s national team.

For each of the six Courage players heading to Australia and New Zealand, it’s their first time going to the World Cup.

“It’s so exciting. It doesn’t feel real,” Fox said. “But I’m so grateful and thankful that I was able to have this opportunity.”

Murphy is excited too. She recently recorded her 30th clean sheet — games in which she doesn’t allow a goal — and became the youngest player in league history to reach that mark.

“With the training environment we have here with the Courage, I feel really prepared to perform this summer on the biggest stage,” Murphy said.

Meaningful first for Ireland’s O’Sullivan

Denise O'Sullivan, the NC Courage's captain, plays for the team on June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Denise O'Sullivan, the NC Courage's captain, plays for the team on June 24, 2023 against Racing Louisville in Cary, North Carolina.

For Denise O’Sullivan, the feeling of playing in her first World Cup is a bit different than what Murphy and Fox are experiencing. While Murphy and Fox grew up seeing their country’s team win championships, O’Sullivan watched hers endure heartbreak on the soccer pitch. She vividly remembers sitting in a pub with her dad, wearing an Irish jersey, and watching the men’s national team lose in penalty kicks to Spain in the Round of 16 in the 2002 World Cup. While the defeat stung, the memory remains a good one for O’Sullivan.

“Cheering them on, it was such a great feeling. And I know people are going to be doing that watching us,” O’Sullivan said. “It's phenomenal to think about.”

For Ireland’s women’s national team, this World Cup berth has been a long time coming. It’s the country’s first appearance in the tournament and something O’Sullivan and her teammates have long strived for.

“It means a lot. I’m always proud to represent my country. And to do it with those girls that I've played with since 2011, some way before that, it's really special,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re very excited for it… The whole country is behind us. That comes with some pressure, but I think that's what I thrive on.”

Ireland will play in one of the opening games of the World Cup, on July 20 against host Australia.

O’Sullivan has been representing her country on the national team level since she was 17. Now 29, she’s played in 101 games for Ireland and has scored 18 goals. Her role for the national team is a bit different than what she’s been for the Courage in recent years, often playing as a tough, junkyard defensive midfielder who excels at winning balls and intercepting opponents. For her country though, O’Sullivan’s job is to create goal-scoring chances.

“I want to score more goals. It's not like I just don't want to score goals; I'm trying to do that. That's my next step I think in this game, to be a better player, is to score more goals and assists for the Courage,” O’Sullivan says. “I have done it for Ireland, now it's time to do it for both.”

Bumpy journey from UNC to World Cup for Fox

NC Courage defender Emily Fox talks with reporters at a press conference at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park after learning she'd been selected to the U.S. national team for the 2023 World Cup.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
NC Courage defender Emily Fox talks with reporters at a press conference at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park after learning she'd been selected to the U.S. national team for the 2023 World Cup.

Like O’Sullivan, Fox featured with the senior national team at an early age, earning her first cap with the USWNT when she was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill. But it wasn’t always a guarantee that she would become a fixture on the roster, much less play in a World Cup. She started playing soccer as a toddler. She was a natural and fell in love with the game right away.

“I picked soccer over other sports I played throughout middle school and things like that,” Fox said. “And now we're here.”

But between her childhood days and getting called to her first World Cup, Fox’s career was nearly derailed by injuries. Twice during her three seasons at UNC, Fox tore the ACL in her left knee, sidelining her for long stretches.

Fox never lost sight of her goal of playing for the national team though. She worked hard to get back in shape each time and has now appeared in 28 games for the U.S. When she got confirmation that she was going to the World Cup, she thought about all the people that helped her reach that point. Right after getting word from coach Vlatko Andonovski, the first person Fox called was her mom.

“I think it shows how hard I’ve worked for this, and how much effort and time I’ve put in and everyone else around me that’s helped me — teammates, coaches, trainers, parents,” Fox said. “I really try to stay present and focus on what's in front of me. And so then, to finally have the call and know, obviously, so excited and grateful, but then, I’m ready to go and get after it.”

While Fox and her Courage teammate Murphy will be playing in their first World Cup, there are several players on this U.S. team that will be playing in — and trying to win — their third. Alyssa Naeher, Alex Morgan, Kelley O'Hara, Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe are among the players on this roster who helped the U.S. win the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

And while no team — men’s or women’s — has ever won three straight World Cups, the Americans are expected to win again, by fans, pundits and oddsmakers.

“There’s always going to be pressure, no matter what, especially with the history this team has had winning World Cups,” Fox said. “It’s just all about embracing it and bringing it on. Hopefully, we try our best to make things look easy, but it’s not. It’s never easy.”

Nothing in Fox’s career has ever been easy though. She has often gone out of her way to make things more difficult. She recently said that when she was deciding on where to go to college, she picked UNC-Chapel Hill because playing in the ultra-competitive environment fostered by longtime coach Anson Dorrance made her “uncomfortable.”

“I knew that I needed that,” Fox said. “And that was what was going to take me to the next level.”

And indeed, it has.

Fox, Murphy and the rest of the U.S. women’s national team take the field for their first World Cup match on July 21 against Vietnam.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.