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Heather O’Reilly on looming retirement: ‘I consider myself very lucky’

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

Heather O’Reilly will retire from soccer at the end of this National Women’s Soccer League season, ending a 17-year career which has included numerous individual and team honors.

Her current club, the North Carolina Courage, will celebrate her career at Saturday’s home match against the Orlando Pride. O’Reilly has spent the past two seasons with the Courage, having previously played for Arsenal, FC Kansas City, Sky Blue FC and the Boston Breakers. She retired from the U.S. women’s national team in 2016, playing her last match on Sept. 15, 2016 — nearly three years ago to the day of her club celebration.

O’Reilly was recently named assistant coach at the University of North Carolina, where she won two NCAA championships from 2003-06.

Ahead of her celebration match, O’Reilly took the time to reflect on her career and what’s ahead.

You’ve known for a while now that this would be your last season. Is it just now hitting you that your career is coming to a close?

Yeah, I think that’s why I tried to announce it before the season. I think it was partly for my fans to kind of just know, but a lot of it was just for me, so that I could say it out loud and come to terms that this was my final season.

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All of us have been doing this for a long, long time. I’ve been playing at an elite level half my life – since I was a teenager. So, it certainly is a closing of a chapter. I feel like I kind of need that – I kind of need that to wrap my head around it. And I consider myself very fortunate in that because a lot of athletes don’t get that. Maybe it’s an injury that ends their career or maybe they don’t make a team that ends their career, and it’s very abrupt. I know emotionally that’s very difficult. For me, in my journey, I feel like that’s what I wanted to do, in terms of saying it nice and early, getting it off my chest so I can kind of just go into the season with a clear head.

So, I think that’s how I kind of went into it and now I’ve had lots of time to prepare. Tomorrow’s game certainly I hope is not my last game, it’s just merely a celebration match of my career – and we of course have a really exciting month ahead of us trying to win two trophies for the club. I’m kind of trying to approach it as a celebration. I hopefully will not have too many waterworks, but I’m a big crybaby so I’m sure that’s not possible.

If you reflect on everything that this game has given you, all the coaches that have been in your life, all the teammates – the things that kind of weave and bob through your life – it can be a really emotional reflection, so I just want to make sure all my energy is pointed toward the right places, and I’m just viewing this as a happy day, as a celebration, a chance for the team to put out another good performance. And then when the season’s over, when I wrap things up with some finality, I am sure there will be even further nostalgia. That’s how I’m trying to approach it.

You’ve been through a celebration game already with the U.S. [in 2016]. Does that help you prepare for this, a similarly emotional day?

I think so. I think that it will be slightly different, knowing that that was definitely my last time on the field. This is more a culmination of all my soccer career; that was more just national team, which was a big part of my life. This kind of goes back even farther. I’m thinking of my club coaches in East Brunswick that got me into the game, and sort of my entire experience.

There are a lot of similar feelings and there is some nostalgia, I think, and gratefulness. I consider myself very lucky. I’ve worked very hard and I think that I deserve everything that I’ve gotten, but I do recognize that there is an element of luck to it, with being around good people – having good mentors, good coaches, parents that would drive me all around the East Coast for soccer. I’ve been on teams that are collections of really talented people. We were able to win a lot of hardware together. It’s a moment for me to be really grateful, too, for everything that I’ve been able to do.

You mentioned looking way back to your early career. One thing that comes to mind is that you played on that New Jersey Wildcats team which stormed through the USL W-League in 2005, which was coached by Charlie Naimo [North Carolina’s technical advisor].

Photo by Lewis Gettier

Charlie Naimo was one of my very early coaches. He probably saw me play for the first time when I was 13, when I was still playing for my town team in East Brunswick, New Jersey and he was a trainer of one of the high school players named Tara Davis, who went on to play at Columbia. She was kind of my first mentor when it came to players that kind of took me by the shoulder. She’s the one who told me what New Jersey ODP was, and what the regional team would be like. I remember telling her that I got my first youth national team camp. She was a senior when I was a freshman, and that relationship was really important to me. Charlie was her coach, so I think they tag-teamed in looking after me and taking care of me.

Then, after that, I joined Charlie Naimo’s PDA team and the rest was history. I started to make the youth national teams and got my first call-up. I would say that Charlie was my real early inspiration that really saw something in me. He was the first person that really allowed me to believe that I was great. I think up to that point, I was kind of almost ashamed or reluctant to have mega-big dreams, like play on the national team or go to UNC. He kind of allowed me to take the parking brake off and said, ‘no, let loose; you have a talent and you should believe and go after these things.’

After that, I started to make the youth national teams and got recruited to UNC. He was like my guide – him and Mike O’Neill, the coach at Rutgers, they were like Jersey roots. I feel like it’s really cool that Charlie and I are ending with the same club. We had a lot of laughs about it last year with the ICC tournament. We just knew that paired up again, it would lead to some great things. It did last season and hopefully it does again this season. But yeah, I can’t believe that would have been probably 2001 that I met him. Eighteen years later and we’re still working together. I owe him a lot.

Kristen Hamilton’s time is now

Next up for you is a role as assistant coach at your alma mater, UNC. How did that opportunity come about?

I went and I’m starting my coaching badge journey. I know that coaching was always a possibility for me. My mom was a teacher and I went to UNC and got a degree in education; I’ve just always liked working with young people. They just have a special place in my heart, so I always knew that it was a possibility to get into coaching and I enjoy doing my summer camps and all that. This year, just by chance, Bill Palladino stepped down from the assistant role at North Carolina, which opened up a spot and allowed me to throw my name in the ring for it. Anson thought that it was a fantastic fit. It all kind of worked out timewise, which I’m really grateful about.

First and foremost, I love Chapel Hill. This is where I’ve made my home. What better coach to learn from than Anson Dorrance? I don’t know how much longer he has coaching; I hope he’s got like at least 10 years in him, but we don’t know. He’s put in like a 40-year shift [laughs]. So, I really want to take this time and really soak up everything that he is and has to offer. I don’t think that there’s better people to learn from. UNC is still the gold standard. I was there last night at their game, after coming home from Portland, and they beat Wake Forest, 4-0 and they didn’t even play their best. I’m like, this is amazing.

Heather O’Reilly and Anson Dorrance during The Equalizer Presents: Women’s Soccer Then and Now discussion panel at the Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill, NC – Saturday, April 6, 2019. Photo by Lewis Gettier

What he has built, the dynasty that he has built, the players that he has developed – I don’t think people have a real, true appreciation for how Anson’s fingerprints are literally on everything when it comes to global women’s football. Beyond even being on that list for players here, you see Sarina Wiegman is the coach of the Netherlands – she’s a Tar Heel. Four players on the World Cup team and I think there were six of us on the 2015 team. But even just those early days of what he and Tony DiCicco were able to do, to win the first World Cup, to win the ’99 World Cup – I just think that his influence has really kind of [shaped] females being competitive, wanting to be winners, treating people with respect and having good sportsmanship but never losing that ruthlessness, that competitive edge. I think that is what has been USA’s DNA for over 25 years. Obviously, we’ve added so much to our game, but those early intangibles have Anson’s name written all over them. So, what an honor for me to be able to be there with him.

Obviously, I can’t do it myself for ever and ever. I’m turning 35 in a couple of months, so I thought that it was a good time to hang up the boots on a professional level. I’m like an orange that’s being squeezed out and you’ve nearly gotten every drop of me, because I kind of lay it all out there. But there’s a few drops left, which is good – I think that’s perfect – because that’s my passion. You don’t want to soak it all out of you because then you have nothing left to give for the next generation and to the game going forward. I certainly have a few drops left, which I think is perfect, but my tank is almost empty, and I know it. It’s the perfect time for me to sort of let the young kids know what I’ve been through for the last 15 years so they can carry the torch at Carolina and beyond.

You said there’s a lot of nostalgia. Does anything specific jump out to you among all those memories?

It might sound arrogant, but just the trophies that I won. I think when you are in it as elite athletes, you’re really just so focused and so in the zone. Even at the World Cup this year, I had a blast doing the broadcast stuff, and I think part of it is that I was out of the playing bubble and I could see from a broader view the impact of the tournament and the excitement. When you’re a player, you’re so just driven and it’s all about if you’re scoring or if you’re in form or if you’re starting. If you’re in an injury, it’s like all you can think about is your injury.

Heather O’Reilly during the SheBelieves Cup (Photo: Daniela Porcelli)

So, I think you can lose perspective a little bit about how amazing it is to do things, especially at a high level. I think as I pull myself back a little bit – from watching the World Cup and these last few months – I really can see the amazing things that I’ve been able to accomplish. Just the amount of championships and hardware and things like that is pretty incredible. I guess I have a new appreciation for the achievements, which I think will only magnify as you kind of get farther away from it.

Are you still going to do broadcasting?

Yeah, that’s very much the plan. Hopefully I’ll be working the U.S. game coming up in Charlotte, and some stuff over in Europe in the fall as well. I love that. I had a great time with it. I think that my game plan is to get my feet wet in coaching and continue to do the TV stuff and maybe at one point I pick one or the other to focus on more, but at this point I don’t need to make that decision. I can kind of do both and try some various things, which as a player you don’t really have the time to do.

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