Player spotlight

Heather O'Reilly ends storied career on top with NWSL title

Heather O'Reilly ended her career on Sunday with yet another piece of silverware - an NWSL title. ASN's John Halloran was in North Carolina for the game and wrote about O'Reilly's swan song. 
BY John Halloran Posted
October 28, 2019
2:00 AM
CARY - There were a lot of different ways Heather O’Reilly’s long and storied career could have ended, but on Sunday afternoon, it ended in perhaps the most fitting way possible—with her exiting the game on top.

The North Carolina Courage defeated the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 in the 2019 NWSL championship and, ironically enough, after a career spent entirely as an attacker, O’Reilly helped her team win her final match as an outside back.

“I came onto this team a year and a half ago when I wrapped up over in London and I had some good talks with [Courage head coach Paul Riley],” O’Reilly told the media the day ahead of the final. “He said, ‘We want you on the team, we really value you. The only problem is we don’t play with wingers. We play with a tight midfield and two up top.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be hard for you to battle into one of those positions because maybe they don’t exactly fit your playing style.”

Not really having a place—in either North Carolina’s formation, or the starting lineup—O’Reilly came to North Carolina anyways and settled in last summer as the team went on to win the 2018 championship. But she didn’t play a big role and, at 34 years of age and having already won a World Cup title and three Olympic gold medals at the international level, she decided that 2019 would be her last year of professional soccer.

O’Reilly entered the season this spring as the fourth player on North Carolina’s depth chart at outside back. So, when she headed to France for five weeks in the middle of the summer to do analyst work for Fox Soccer, no one would have thought much if she let her fitness level drop. Playing time on the Courage was unlikely to come when she got back anyways.

But O’Reilly had a feeling that the team would need her—even though few others would have suspected it—and she used a personal trainer in France to stay fit. Then, shortly after her return from France, it happened. Starting right back Merritt Mathias went down with an ACL injury and North Carolina would need O’Reilly, the veteran, to step into the void.

“I think I always went into this season knowing in my heart that I was going to play a big role and months ago I didn’t know what that looked like,” she said. “It probably looked like coming off the bench and playing the last 10 minutes, or something like that. But I just felt like I had to be ready and I felt like the team was going to need me. Obviously, I didn’t expect to be playing right fullback, but I’m totally embracing it.”

On Sunday, North Carolina ran around, through, and behind Chicago on their way to the blowout win. O’Reilly attributed the Courage’s success over the past several seasons—three NWSL regular season titles and three championships in four years—to Riley’s training environment.

“It all stems from Paul Riley’s creation of a training environment that is very intense,” she explained. “I’m used to very intense environments playing at UNC and the U.S. teams for my entire career, for the most part, but here I would say it’s another level of intensity. Just from minute one you’re expected to be on, you’re expected to be locked in.

“It’s a little bit old-school with the willingness to outwork teams. We run a lot at training. We value our fitness and our speed and qualities like that. In today’s day, you don’t really focus on [that] as much, but I think that gives us a mental edge that we are fitter and faster.”

Over the years, O’Reilly’s fierce competitiveness became legendary for the United States women’s national team. In total she finished with a remarkable 231 caps for the U.S. and scored 47 times. She was only 17 when she debuted, and even scored her first international goal at WakeMed Soccer Park—where this weekend’s final was contested.

But entering Sunday’s game, O’Reilly said she was remarkably calm, even knowing that it would be the last time she ever played. And after winning everything the game has to offer, she went out on top, a fitting end for a champion and American legend.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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