By Kevin Koczwara
Heather O’Reilly started playing for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team while still in high school in East Brunswick, New Jersey. O’Reilly was asked by the national team coach April Hendricks to suit up for the match against Sweden in the Algrave Cup on March 1, 2002 despite being only 17 years old and still in high school. The forward hasn’t looked back since, making over 1oo appearances.
O’Reilly played on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, she was the youngest member of the team, winning a gold medal. She scored a crucial, game-winning overtime goal for the USWNT in the semi-finals match with Germany, which the U.S. won, 2-1. She would go on to be a vital member of the gold medal winning team in 2008 in Beijing, China.
The North Carolina Tar Heels retired O’Reilly’s number 20 jersey in 2008 after she graduated from the university with a degree in education and earning numerous awards for her play on two NCAA Division 1 Women’s soccer teams. She was named Offensive MVP of the NCAA Tournament twice and won the prestigious NCAA Honda-Broderick award for the best female college athlete as a senior – she was nominated three previous times.
The Sky Blue FC picked up O’Reilly for the Women’s Professional Soccer league’s [WPS] inaugural season in 2009 through allocation, allowing O’Reilly the opportunity to play in her home state of New Jersey professionally. Sky Blue took home the WPS league and playoff championship in the WPS’s in 2009.
Now, O’Reilly is preparing for the World Cup in Germany next summer with the rest of the USWNT with the hope of bringing home the soccer world’s biggest prize.
I was able to speak with O’Reilly a few weeks ago about the World Cup and the WPS. Here is what she said.
What has it been like to play consistently for the USWNT since the young age of 17?
I think that I was fortunate to be given a chance as a younger player. The coach at the time, April Hendricks … had faith in me at a very young age. But what I think I am proud of is my consistency because it is tough as an athlete to go through highs and lows. One thing I am proud of is that through different coaches and personal highs and lows, that I have been able to contribute to this team [USWNT].
I think the most important thing coming in [to the USWNT] is realizing that you deserve to be there [on the team] for a reason and that you obviously have specific qualities and skills that make you an important piece. So, I think the most important thing is to focus on what you are good at, of course we can all get better in different areas for sure. But whatever makes you a special player, and making sure you bring that every single day. For me, it was always my fitness and my work ethic, and my speed, my physical qualities. For other people it might be, they a set piece specialist, are they the toughest defender out there, whatever makes them excel and be different from the rest of America.
What has it been like to play for and prepare with the USWNT after a long WPS season?
The WPS season was a new challenge for us with just how long it is and how many games. With that said, I think you still need to get up for every single game and figure out a way to get your body and mind back to perform every weekend. With the national team it is different because you have fewer games, but one thing I am realizing now as I get a little bit older is that you really have to focus on your recovery and your professionalism and taking care of your body. So, I’m sort of working on relaxing a little bit more and doing more recovery techniques. I never thought I’d be jumping in the ice bath and wearing compression pants and all that kind of stuff, but you certainly have to do it to be fresh for every game.
Lengthening of the WPS Season, good in the long run for the league and for players? Will it hamper the National Team?
I think they [the WPS] have their reasons for lengthening the season, but I think most people would agree that it was just a little bit long this year, not necessarily the number of games, but just the length of this year – a seven month season. It just takes its toll on your body. I think it was a bit long for sure, but I am happy that ownership felt that extra games would help the league. I think in the end if you keep it a little bit shorter and you keep the bodies and minds fresh, it will be better off and the level will be that much higher for those games. I think going into the World Cup year, you need to be extremely precise with how much we [the USWNT] are training and how much we are playing because you don’t want to over-train – you want to be ready for the World Cup.
How will the WPS evolve next year with the World Cup in the same year?
It is going to be interesting, it will be a challenge. A lot of people are looking at this year. The WUSL only lasted three years, so everybody is looking at this third year. Will the WPS even make it, or can it be stronger coming out of year three? I think a lot of that has to do with how well they [the WPS] plan on scheduling the league around the World Cup. I’m not sure on how they are structuring the schedule, but I hope there is a significant break midseason for the American players and international players to go to the World Cup. I don’t know about the other teams, but I know the U.S. is planning a lot of training for the World Cup, so the national team players are going to be missing a lot of games. It’s how the WPS goes about structuring the league around the World Cup because I think there are a lot of positives the World Cup can bring. When there is a World Cup it directs a lot of people’s attention to soccer and I think that can really help out the league in a big way. Hopefully they will feed off of one another.
Are there any changes you would like to see to the WPS?
I think they are trying to make the best league in the world, and I think that it is the best league in the world. A lot of the best players are here, it has competitive matches. I think in other leagues there are the top teams in each table and then competition drops off a bit. The parody in the WPS is incredible, and that is its strength. I think the league needs to continue to progress its professionalism in terms of we have the best players, but do we training on the best fields, the best facilities, of course we have to pack the stadiums and we want the entire experience to be the most professional it can be. And I think the potential is there.
How do you feel the fan base has reacted to the WPS and is the fan base growing?
We definitely have significant challenges right now in terms of marketing and ticket sales, it’s a tough time for any league. In terms of our fan base, we have some incredible fans at Sky Blue. And all the other clubs have die hard fans that want to see us to succeed. Obviously our demographic is going to be girls and their parents that bring them to games, and we love that. It prides me every time someone asks for my autograph and when a girl says she wants to play like me when she is older. That’s incredible. The new challenge is to expand the demographic to the general sports fan, interesting them to getting out to the stadiums. I have faith that if you get them to be to a game one time, they will be a fan. It’s just about getting people there [to games] initially and making people aware of all the different franchises.
U.S.A.’s chances at winning the World Cup Next Summer and who is the team’s biggest challenger?
I think we like our chances and we believe in our preparation and out coaching staff and in our team. Obviously we have to win our qualifiers first, hopefully we can take care of business there first.
I think the best contender has to be the home team, Germany. They have the benefit of all playing on the same club team and I think that’s huge. I think we have some ground to make up because we have been playing on different club teams for all these months. We’ve come off of two victories against Germany, we know we can beat [them]. With that said, they will have the entire nation behind them and that will be tough.
There are a lot of other great teams out there as well, like Brazil and Sweden. The competition is fantastic, but we like our chances.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.