Soccer analyst Heather O’Reilly keeps it professional when the cameras are rolling on Fox’s World Cup studio set. But the cameras were off when her Courage teammate Jessica McDonald made her World Cup debut last Sunday as a halftime substitute in the United States’ 3-0 win over Chile.
So of course O’Reilly was cheering.
“Oh, it was so great. I wish you could have seen me,” O’Reilly told The News & Observer in an interview at the Fox set, which has a view of the Eiffel Tower. “She’s a wonderful person: a great mom, a great teammate and has had an incredible career. … To finally see it all pay off later in her career is a success story (for) anybody chasing their dreams.”
McDonald’s appearance was part of a show of force by U.S. coach Jill Ellis. In playing all 20 of her outfield players over the first two games, the Americans showed the world that no team in the tournament can match their depth.
“That just lets you know how dominant all 23 of us are as a squad,” McDonald, who played at UNC from 2008-2009, said. “No matter who’s in the game, we’re going to bring some heat.”
Ellis’ moves also sent a message within the U.S. locker room. Four years ago, she didn’t play the entire squad in Canada, and some players only saw limited minutes. After last Sunday’s 3-0 win over Chile, Ellis acknowledged that she learned a lesson from 2015 about the benefits of playing everyone.
“You can get suspensions, you can get injuries, you can get all these things, and the more prepared you are to prepare with all those things, the better off we’ll be,” Ellis said. “Now every single one of them has got butterflies out of the way … and they know that trust is there. That’s a huge part, I think, from a coach, to be able to show that trust in terms of playing players on the biggest stage of their careers.”
Some of the best performances of any Courage player on the American squad so far have come from centerback Abby Dahlkemper. Her distribution from the back line has been outstanding, from raking long passes to pinpoint crosses.
“I think that’s why Abby is on the field, specifically: her ability to play longer diagonal passes,” O’Reilly, who played for UNC from 2003-2006, said. “For a U.S. team that has world-class wingers, it’s actually a really important attribute, because the U.S. team is able to play as fast or faster than anybody else… but also play with a longer range of play, too.”
Now it’s time for the big tests, starting with Thursday’s 3 p.m. group stage-ending grudge match against Sweden in Le Havre.
Scoring 16 goals through two games made a statement to the field, and to fans back home. But those routs came against lesser opponents. So how big of a statement was it, really?
“Maybe they increased the target size on their back, but they were No. 1 coming into the tournament,” O’Reilly said about the U.S. women’s national team. “They always had a target on their back. I don’t think anything has changed over the last week or two.”
And they relish it. That hasn’t changed either, going back to O’Reilly’s national team tenure and well before. Pick your analogy, from Duke (okay, maybe not that one for a team full of Tar Heels) to the Cowboys to the Yankees. The Americans have long thrived on the sizzle of being women’s soccer’s biggest show.
“We were always known as being the team that should win the thing, and that expects to win, and anything else than winning is a severe disappointment,” O’Reilly said. “Definitely, it’s the DNA of this team: it’s win or bust pretty much all the time, and it’s been that way for the last 20-plus years. And we do love it.”
U.S. vs. Sweden
Women’s World Cup
When: 3 p.m., Thursday
TV: FOX, Telemundo