Jessica McDonald is an ultra-talented former three-sport athlete, a key piece of the back-to-back regular season champions in the National Women’s Soccer League and a single mother of a 6-year-old son.
The 6-foot North Carolina Courage forward, nine-year pro and former player at UNC has changed club teams seven times, played in six different states and had a stint abroad.
But the 30-year-old attacker’s story is only fully told when mentioning the role her son Jeremiah plays in her life. Accompanying her on road trips and sporting superhero costumes in the stands during home games, Jeremiah has been McDonald’s source of motivation over the past six years.
McDonald, who is the only mother on the Courage, is a key part of the National Women’s Soccer League team that’s ranked No. 1 and has a 16-1-6 record heading into the team’s last regular game of the season.
‘Name the sport, I’ve played it’
Growing up, McDonald was more than just a soccer star. At Cactus High School in Glendale, Ariz., she won two state championships and was named first-team all-region in basketball. She also set school records in the 100-, 200-, 400- and 4x400-meter relay races. But those weren’t the only sports she played.
“You name the sport, I’ve played it,” McDonald said. “I was quarterback for a football team one year, played volleyball, played softball -- you name it.”
McDonald would eventually settle on soccer after transferring from a community college to UNC during her sophomore year in 2008. Joining the team after the season had already begun, McDonald played a key role on the Tar Heels team that won a national championship that year. The striker scored five goals and led the team in assists with 10 despite missing the first seven games of the season.
She returned for the 2009 season and helped UNC win back-to-back championships before being picked 15th overall by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer draft.
Before arriving at North Carolina, however, McDonald was continuing to showcase her abilities in multiple athletic fields.
At Phoenix College, a community college in Arizona that competes in the National Junior College Athletic Association, McDonald continued her grind as a three-sport athlete. She was named National Junior College Player of the Year in soccer, selected to the all-region and all-conference first-teams in basketball, and earned first-team all-America honors in the 400-meter race in track and field. In 2013, she became the youngest female to be named to the Phoenix College hall of fame.
‘A phenomenal athlete’
McDonald’s athletic prowess is what makes her a nightmare to defend on the pitch, and is something Courage head coach Paul Riley raves about.
“What a specimen (she is) athletically,” Riley said. “She is a phenomenal athlete, and her athleticism, when she’s fresh like she’s been the last few days, she’s quick; she’s agile; she can jump; she can head a ball and chase people down; she closes space quickly; she can open up when we need her to open up; she can take players on ... so she offers so much to the team.”
Indeed, McDonald has given much to a Courage team that is 13 points clear of second place in the NWSL table. She ranks amongst the top 11 in the league in goals with six while adding a league-second-best six assists.
Riley has been coaching the UNC grad for five straight years, moving with her from the Portland Thorns to the Western New York Flash and ultimately to the Courage. McDonald was traded multiple times before ending up in North Carolina in 2017 as a result of the Flash’s relocation south, and Riley’s contract wasn’t renewed in Portland allowing for his move to New York.
Riley has had a front-row view of McDonald’s progression and has seen her become more than just an athletically dominant soccer player.
“She’s more important in what she does off the ball for us,” Riley said. “She runs really well off the ball. She causes a lot of trouble. She brings a lot of attention, and that attention frees up Debinha, Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, but without that kind of central figure there - (McDonald) provides that central figure for us that we can go through. She’s really developed her game.”
Riley noted that at this point McDonald is “almost impossible to leave out of the lineup” because “she’s in that good of form.”
‘He’s my motivation’
McDonald’s rock through the course of all of the travel a soccer career entails is her son Jeremiah.
He can sometimes be seen wearing superhero costumes at WakeMed Soccer Park during the Courage’s home matches.
McDonald’s son often travels with the team to games and was one of the first to be welcomed back to Raleigh following the Courage’s win in the Women’s International Champions Cup in Miami.
“I think at this point he’s got more fans than I do,” McDonald said about Jeremiah. “It’s been an absolutely incredible adventure with him being able to witness what I’m doing, because I just want him to obviously say one day he’s proud of me. He uplifts me. He’s my motivation.”
McDonald, who declined to talk about Jeremiah’s father, says she’s fortunate to have a strong support system to help her with Jeremiah. When he is not in school, Jeremiah often travels with McDonald to away games, with friends on opposing teams helping her find babysitters for him during matches. McDonald’s mother and friends in North Carolina assist her in taking care of Jeremiah during home games and when he doesn’t travel with her.
McDonald has scored the second-most goals in league history, ranking above US National Team heroes Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd. She’s had international experience representing her country as well.
McDonald, Riley and the Courage have one game left in the regular season with a first-place finish already locked up. They are gearing up for the NWSL playoffs and the opportunity to win their first postseason title in team history.
McDonald is sure to play a large part.
“I’ve had her ... the last five years, and this is the best form she’s ever been in,” Riley said. “She’s playing in amazing form, and if we can keep this form for the next month and a half I think it would be a huge help for the team….She’s great in the locker room too. She’s the only mom on the team. She’s got a little more work to do than the rest of us.”
Houston Dash at Carolina Courage
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary
Tickets: Range from $14 to $49
Note: Dash at Courage is the second game of a doubleheader. The first game, NCFC vs. Nashville, begins at 5 and is included in the Courage ticket.