Portland, Oregon — Jessica McDonald‘s journey as a player is surely not over, but Saturday, one chapter came to an almost too-neat ending as she returned to Portland — in front of a sell-out crowd of 21,144 — to win a championship against the club that traded her for a draft pick in 2015.
“I don’t know if you can write a better script,” said North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, who was also her coach in Portland back in 2014. “She leads the league in assists, and I think that was the tenth goal this season. That’s unbelievable… I think Jess Mac’s getting better with age.”
The last few years, for McDonald, have been difficult in more ways than one. After starting at forward for the first 11 games of the 2014 season, she was relegated to the bench when Alex Morgan recovered from injury. She scored eight goals in that stretch and would end the season, one in which the Thorns lost in the semifinal round to Kansas City, as the team’s leading goalscorer. Despite that performance, she wound up in Houston in 2015 (where she was also the leading scorer), before finally landing in Western New York, back with Riley, in 2016. Add in the move from Rochester to Cary, North Carolina, when the franchise was sold and relocated, and a mid-season trade from Chicago to Seattle in 2013, and McDonald has lived in six different cities in the last five years.
“I’ve bounced around a lot in this league,” McDonald said after the game, “and I finally found a home. I found a place where I’m comfortable, where my kid is comfortable as well, and that kind of comfort sort of gives me some motivation. The fact that a team really continues to want me with their organization, it’s kind of nice for me as an individual.”
It’s clear why North Carolina values McDonald. Beyond her performance in the championship match, which saw her score two goals, she’s been a key offensive asset for her team all season. She’s the league leader in assists this year with eight, on top of her ten goals. That’s a big improvement over last season, when she notched just four goals and two assists.
“Me and Jess had a little moment in the locker room,” said North Carolina forward Lynn Williams after the game. “I’ve obviously played with her for the last three years and I think last year she fell short of her goals. She was going through some personal stuff and life changes for her, and to see her this season, she obviously took a different role of being more of an assister. With these two playoff games, I don’t think she’s ever played better.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2018
Adding to the difficulty of getting bounced around from team to team is that McDonald has a young son. “You know, after practice, we go home,” said Riley. “I go home, I do a bit of reading, most of them probably sleep. But this one has to work even harder, with her kid, so I give her an amazing amount of credit.”
Midfielder Sam Mewis echoed Riley. “I think her commitment to putting soccer first has been really admirable,” said Mewis. “Jess has a family, she has a lot of other things going on in her life, and for her to be performing this well is incredible. The rest of us, this is our number one priority, and she’s like, FaceTiming her kid on the bus. And I think that for her to be able to do both is such a huge accomplishment, and it’s a sign that anyone can do anything, and I think we all really admire her commitment to the team and her commitment to her family as well.”
The stability she’s found in North Carolina has made her continued improvement as a player possible — and according to Riley, she’s performing well beyond what the team expected from her. “At the beginning of the season, I thought if we could get four or five out of Jess we’d be good, you know, get ten twelve games out of her. But as the season went on she got better and better, she took care of herself off the field.”
“She just makes it hard,” said Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg. “She’ll run when her team needs her to run. She’ll press, she gets in behind, and she likes to cause a bit of havoc in front of goal.”
McDonald’s success this season can’t be separated from her partnership with Williams, which has strengthened in the duo’s third year together. “We trust each other,” says Williams. “We know what each other does well and we let that person do it. … She has been the person to check off more off the back line, and I’m the person to go in behind, and it’s worked.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2018
What defines North Carolina is their team ethos — how far more than any individual player, the roots of this team’s success are a system that works perfectly with their roster, and a group of players willing to work for each other when the chips are down. All the same, on this day, in this stadium packed with Portland fans, McDonald was crucial. “She’s a worker,” said Williams. “She pushes both of us to be better, and I like to think we uplift each other, and I don’t have anything else to say, but that was amazing! She was so awesome.”