Selfless O’Reilly ready for one last USWNT game

John D Halloran September 14, 2016 33
Heather O'Reilly will play her 231st and final game for the U.S. women's national team on Thursday.  (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Heather O’Reilly will play her 231st and final game for the U.S. women’s national team on Thursday. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Last Wednesday, after FC Kansas City managed to squeak out a 3-2 midweek victory over the host Chicago Red Stars, much of the postgame talk focused on FCKC midfielder Heather O’Reilly.

Less than a week earlier, O’Reilly had announced her retirement from the United States women’s national team after 15 years of service and 230 appearances. However, no one wanted to talk about O’Reilly’s international retirement on Wednesday, instead focusing on her dominating performance in the match itself.

While the Red Stars had everything to play for that night, fighting to secure a playoff spot with only three games to go in the NWSL season, Kansas City entered the game essentially eliminated from playoff contention. Still, O’Reilly—not knowing how to play the game any other way than 100 miles per hour—helped set up two of Kansas City’s goals on the way to the win.

“Heather was amazing tonight,” said FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski. “Her leadership in the middle of the field was very important and created a couple of goals for us which were very important for the outcome of the game.”

Chicago head coach Rory Dames agreed and credited O’Reilly’s fitness as the difference-maker on a hot and humid evening in Chicago.

[LAULETTA: O’Reilly’s sparkling record in championship matches]

“Heather never gets tired,” said Dames. He later added, “Her engine is unbelievable. Heather’s been doing the same thing since she was 16—and that’s being a great teammate, being a leader, scoring goals and helping her team win.”

Kansas City forward Shea Groom, who scored twice with help from O’Reilly, also complimented her teammate, saying, “I admire the way that Heather plays.”

“To be able to build that chemistry with such an amazing player who can deliver a ball every time—there’s nothing more you can ask for as a center forward than [for your teammate] to be able to get balls to your foot like that,” Groom later added. “You can’t miss.”

On Thursday, O’Reilly will play her last game for the U.S., captaining the squad as it takes on Thailand (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). And while the game will no doubt be a celebration of the New Jersey native’s many accomplishments (including three Olympic gold medals, a World Cup championship, two pro titles and two NCAA titles), her performance in Chicago last Wednesday demonstrated the one thing many fans will miss most about O’Reilly: her unceasing desire to win.

Even late in her career, when most athletes go into cruise control, O’Reilly sought to get better—and did. No longer able to beat defenders with sheer pace, the 31-year-old developed a new bag of tricks. Her vision and passing improved, her left-footed service improved, and she continued to set new national team records with her fitness.

Even as the Olympics neared and it looked ever more likely she wouldn’t make the team, O’Reilly stayed incredibly positive. During media commitments the day before the U.S.’ send-off match in Chicago—and only two days before Ellis had stated she would announce the final Olympic roster—the American team got off the bus and walked past the mixed-zone in silence. All except O’Reilly, who broke the silence by extending an ear-to-ear smile and an enthusiastic “Hi!” to the press.

[MORE: O’Reilly reflects on USWNT career ahead of retirement]

Two weeks later, in Kansas City for the team’s last send-off match—and even after Ellis had named her as an alternate—O’Reilly looked focused in training. In Brazil, she kept the same attitude, telling Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, “We’re always asking the players what they might need, if it’s extra reps, extra shooting, extra heading, whatever it might be.” And she served as a role model for the U.S.’ next generation, pushing fellow alternates and newcomers Emily Sonnett and Sam Mewis during training in Brazil.

After O’Reilly announced her international retirement, club teammate Yael Averbuch wrote a touching blog post, including examples of O’Reilly running wind sprints on the day she got engaged, taking U.S. Soccer’s “E” coaching course—even though as a national team member, she is eligible for a “B” license—and prefacing every national team camp with, “If I’m invited.” With O’Reilly, there never seemed to be any pretense, assumption, ego or self-importance.

In a world that often seems full of entitled sports stars, or athletes that end up in the news for all the wrong reasons, O’Reilly stands for everything that is good about sports, everything that is inspiring about athletic heroes and everything that seems all too uncommon in the world today.

  • Terry Lash

    Thumbs up for HAO. Her treatment by Ellis was not classy. Julie Foudy where are you when it’s important?

    • Steglitz49

      I wonder why taking a recovering Pinoe was a better bet than a steady but sure HAO? What gave Pinoe the edge? Was it orders from above?

      • Rufan

        Either Ellis was always going to pick Pinoe no matter on a wish and pray that she would be game fit after only 7 months or Ellis was forced to take her.

        • Steglitz49

          I lean towards forced to take her. That explains why she can’t say anything when it went pear-shaped.

          Meanwhile Sweden is getting a dose of their own medicine, learning what it is like to play against a bunkering team that can counter attack. Good training. Builds character.

          • Chak Khan

            When did that happen?

          • Steglitz49

            It is going on as we tyoe. It is 2-1 to Sweden in front of their Prime Minister. Could have been 6-1 but also 2-2.

  • Chak Khan

    I am wondering if HAO had been the starting 11 at the OG16, would USWNT not be sent home from SF.

    • Steglitz49

      They did not reach the SF. They went home from the QF.

      • Chak Khan

        Same question with QF this time.

        • Steglitz49

          There are more questions than answers.

          Had Pia started Blackstenius against Germany, would Sweden have won the gold?

          • Chak Khan

            Higher chance that SWE would.

    • DNG

      I don’t think the US loss is on not playing HAO. They won the World Cup without her on the field. She isn’t better than the players that started.

  • HOFCToDi

    youtube.com/watch?v=MVjN7aFVEag

    • AlexH

      2 players I am really going to miss. If only Chups had a rock-hard skull to complement HAO’s rock-hard abs.

    • That was great. I hadn’t seen any of those clips.

      • Steglitz49

        I remember the wedding clip. When I saw the one with Chups I sort of remember it.

        Let’s trust it will be a great match for HAO.

        I wonder why they can’t get a sort of all-stars together for this sort of match. Granted, with Euro qualifiers and what have you it is not so easy but where there is a will there is a way. Heather could play for the US in the first half and the all-stars in the second.

        Here is a lineup.
        Hevig Lindahl, Jessica Samuelsson and Stina Blackstenius from Sweden. Sara Däbritz and DZ from Germany. Aya Miyama and Saki Kumagai from Japan. Two English lasses. Ada Hegerberg and Adrine Hegerberg from Norway. Subs can be Daphne Corboz (undeclared but plays for Man City), Pernille Harder (Denmark) and Alexia Putellas (Spain). — and, how could I forget, Marta.

  • Steglitz49

    From across the other side of the blue Atlantic and North Sea.

    The Swedish MNT has not taken a medal in 22 years, yet interest still raises the roof as soon their head coach gathers his male players. Media pour out column iches about the men. This is a luxury the SWNT team are not afforded and can’t themselves to. They must succeed — each and every time, over and over again — to defend their place in the sun.

    As of yesterda, just over 10,000 tickets had been sold for today’s European Championship qualifier against Slovakia . It is a good number. Very good and even, given the (lack of) strength of Slovakia’s WNT and that it is almost a formality for Sweden to take at least one point in the two remaining matches and thus qualify for the European Championships in Holland next year.

    Obviously it is the Olympic silver and, above all, the dramatic and unlikely road to the final, that is the basis for this interest from the public. Nevertheless, the fact that the much less successful men gets such tons of exposue for free in the media even without Zlatan, must be galling to the Swedish ladies, also that the public fawns over them.

    • Chak Khan

      Sounds familiar. Sexism is world wide disease.

      • Steglitz49

        About 11,400 went along to the match, including the Swedish Prime Minister.

      • Lodovico Settembrini

        Men’s soccer is faster, quicker and yes in most of the cases better

        I love women soccer. Don’t get me wrong

        But if people (both women and men) prefer men’s soccer I would not call that sexism

        • Chak Khan

          Not talking about liking; it’s about unequal treatment. Money is everything. Put more in women’s sports, development AND ADVERTISEMENT, TV exposure then the people and profit will be coming.

  • KT5000

    HAO was one of my first favorite players, bringing me back into soccer fandom as part of the WNT and in WPS.

    Thanks for this article. I has feels.

  • GT

    Huge fan of HAO dating back to WPS days playing for Sky Blue. A real class act.

  • sudeep das

    Brilliant John – one of your best articles.

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  • Paul Klee

    The most important question for tonight is: Well Christen Press be back in number 23? Oh, and the HAO thing too?

    • Ethan

      Everyone has their Olympics numbers. The only change is Horan to 19 and O’Reilly to 9, and that one obviously had to happen. I’m sure Press goes back to 23 for the NT when the post-Olympic games are over.

  • Cc W

    Trying to watch this “match” against Thailand – 5 minutes in 3-0 – HAO has an assist and a goal, guess that’s all I needed to see.

    • MadMaxi

      You can tell the US team is trying to give Thailand as many chances to do anything with the ball. Wish they had a more skilled team with hunger to play against.

    • DNG

      I don’t understand why they schedule these matches. There is nothing that can be taken from a match this one sided.

      • Cc W

        Me either – it might be good for Thailand to get some games in, but it isn’t fun to watch.

      • Rufan

        USSF had to start scheduling games in anticipation of a Victory Tour, and Thailand was probably the only team willing to come in Sep. for the price USSF was willing to offer.