In the 89th minute of Sunday’s NWSL Championship game in Cary, North Carolina, the crowd rose to their feet for a standing ovation. Veteran Heather O’Reilly, who announced her plans to retire at season’s end, was being substituted from the game. She turned to the grandstand with her arms spread wide, let a joyous grin spread across her face, and jogged to the bench to raucous approval of her teammates and head coach.
“Unbelievable result,” O’Reilly said after the match. “I think we were dominant from the start. It doesn’t happen overnight – this is a cumulation of a lot of hard work this season. So, what a way to end the year, and what a way to end my career. Seventeen good years. Seventeen years ago I scored my first national-team goal on this field in 2002. It’s been an incredible journey, a lot of different teams, international career, professional career. It’s been quite a ride and I’m very grateful.”
From New Jersey to Boston with a stop at Arsenal before returning to North Carolina, where she was a standout at the University of North Carolina, O’Reilly has done it all at club level, in addition to success on the international stage, which includes winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal and the 2015 World Cup title with the U.S women’s national team.
Since her announcement in April that this would be her final season as a pro player, she’s been lauded by teammates, coaches, and fans alike, all while playing her swan song in the soccer community that helped shape her. A community that O’Reilly mentions deserves exactly the squad they have at the moment.
“It’s a soccer-rich community,” she said. “I think from the history of Anson Dorrance leading the University of North Carolina for the past forty years it’s been established that this is a community that knows soccer, gets it, appreciates good football. And now to have the Courage back again after a little bit of a break without professional soccer is, I think, perfect. The area deserves it, the people deserve it, and hopefully it’s here for a long time to come.”
While O’Reilly’s talent has always been lauded, she brings another important aspect into the fold. With an infectious smile, energy, and work ethic that has seemingly grown in the twilight of her career, O’Reilly, who has earned the right to be called a legend of the game, has always fit in as just another one of the girls.
“HAO is a legend… she’s one of us, we don’t realize it all the time, but she has over 230 caps for the national team,” midfielder Sam Mewis said. “She has done so much and been through everything – her wisdom, her experience, her ability to be a good teammate, and be a presence in the locker room is so huge. Sending her off like this feels really good, and I was honored to be her teammate on the national team, and I’m honored that I’ve gotten to know her in a new way in a club environment. She’s a special player and a special person and I’m really happy we sent her off with a win.”
When asked what it meant to send O’Reilly off with a win, Crystal Dunn added: “Oh, man. Everything. Yes. We gave our all just for her. How important she is to our team, and what an incredible run she’s had over her career. So inspiring, and for her to be the one that goes out on top today, the way we did, is really special.”
Through all of her stops across the world, nearly 100 goals for club and country, and one final piece of silverware, HAO never lost sight of playing for the love of the game.
“I definitely did some angels in the confetti and that was kind of fun, looking up at the sky. That was a fun moment. The fans were great, the weather was beautiful. A real picture perfect end to everything.”