CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Soccer Tournament will return to WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary in 2024 and this time the 7-on-7, $1 million, winner-take-all event will include an eight-team women's field that will also have a million-dollar prize.
In June, former United States women's national team star Heather O'Reilly entered an all-women team in the tournament, which was otherwise made up almost exclusively of men, and though the team went winless, it drew significant support.
"We were blown away last year (summer 2023) by the reception that Heather O'Reilly's U.S. Women team got down in North Carolina," Jon Mugar, the founder and CEO of The Tournaments, told ESPN.
The all-women team was also blown away -- losing its three matches by a combined 24-1, including a 12-0 drubbing at the hands, er, feet, of older, retired players from Wrexham AFC, the Welsh soccer team famously co-owned by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney,
Still, there was a lot of fun and good sportsmanship all around.
"There were a lot of people there cheering them on specifically and getting to know Heather throughout the process, we quickly got to talking about, 'Hey, what would this look like if we were to break out a women's bracket with a separate and equal million-dollar prize?'"
The possibility was music to O'Reilly's ears. Even if there had not been the addition of a women's bracket, there was already unanimity within the players on her team that they still would have wanted to come back to compete against the men.
But the addition of a women's bracket with a separate $1 million prize changes the stakes significantly.
O'Reilly's team -- which this year played with the name U.S. Women, featured multiple former national team players and was coached by Mia Hamm -- will go for the prize.
"I'm thrilled to take part again in it this year and I think it's a huge statement that TST and the organizers have committed to equal prize money," O'Reilly said.
"The statement that it makes and the feeling around equality, I think is super special."
An eight-team field -- as opposed to an expanded 48-team field for the men -- also means the chances for each women's team to win money are, relatively, much better.
"I'm a competitor and I like our chances," O'Reilly said. "I'm definitely going to be calling a lot of the household names that everybody can imagine that just retired, like Ali Krieger, Julie Ertz, Carli Lloyd. I can promise that we'll get some big names there. We're four hours away from a million-dollar prize."
The tournament will be held from June 5-10. The men's and women's championship games will both be on the final day with a television partner still to be determined.
In 2023, more than 35,000 fans attended the event, which had a festival-like feel over four days.
Tournament organizers, who also run The Basketball Tournament, have fielded significant interest from clubs all over the world and expect the level of play to rise as teams understand the style of play on a more compact field with hockey-style substitutions and a scoring format -- target score time -- that requires every game to finish on a goal.
After two 20-minute halves are played, an untimed period begins to determine a winner by reaching a target score, which will be one goal more than whatever the team with the lead had at the end of regulation.
This year, a team made up primarily of professional indoor players -- Newtown Pride FC -- won the tournament on a goal from Kelvin Nunes, who joined the team from Brazil. They donated a portion of their prize money to the Newtown Community Center last month. The field also had representatives from clubs that included Borussia Dortmund, Wrexham, West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, among others.
Though the tournament was largely seen as a success, there was a troubling moment when a team walked off the field during a match. It happened near the end of the match between Dallas United and West Ham United when a West Ham player said a Dallas United player used a racial slur against him.
The rest of the tournament went off without incident, and leading up to the spectacle, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said in May that the event was important to Cary as it aimed to become less of a suburban community and more of an attractive town on its own.
"We're trying to attract businesses and people to our municipality and to do that we're trying to brand ourselves in trying to not only become an amateur sports Mecca but to become a place where sports is known," Weinbrecht said.
ESPN contributed to this report.