CARY, N.C. — With a four-goal lead in the 89th minute, Paul Riley thought it was time.
The coach called for Heather O’Reilly to exit the match. As she walked over to greet him and teammates on the bench, cheers grew louder and louder for the kid they call HAO. With the game in the bag, she smiled, raised her arms up and basked in the championship-winning feeling one last time.
If anyone on the pitch in the National Women’s Soccer League final deserved a standing ovation from a record-setting crowd as they walked off the pitch, it was O’Reilly. The 34-year-old U.S. national team veteran played in the final game of her professional career Sunday, helping the North Carolina Courage to an NWSL championship with a 4-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“I’ll remember doing angels on the field in the confetti and looking up at the sky,” O’Reilly said. “I’ll remember the locker room scene. A lot of Budweiser.
“It was a packed house tonight. It was special. I’m all cried out, at least right now. I feel like I’m in a really good, peaceful time. That was incredible. They kind of saw me off the field, but I didn’t want to take anything away from the team.”
O’Reilly didn’t just play in the NWSL final, she was a key piece of the Courage’s defensive strategy and played a big role in marking Japanese midfielder Yuki Nagasato, who along with Sam Kerr forms a formidable one-two punch on offense for the Red Stars. This season, Nagasato had eight goals and nine assists. She tallied two assists during her past three games against the Courage.
A complete team performance allowed the Courage to keep the Red Stars off the scoreboard, and O’Reilly was frequently tasked with containing Nagasato along the left wing Sunday. Nagasato had just one shot attempt.
“We managed Nagasato well with HAO, and it’s not easy,” Riley said. “Heather O’Reilly did a bit of it, and a little bit of the No. 6s. They managed Nagasato well in the second half. Really pleased with them.”
Taking on an immensely talented offensive player is nothing new for O’Reilly. She’s done it countless times dating back to the beginning of her professional career in 2002, when she made the first of her 231 appearances with the national team. And just last week, in the NWSL semifinals, she had to mark her former U.S. teammate Megan Rapinoe, who also went scoreless against the Courage.
Starting at right back in the NWSL final was never the Courage’s plan for O’Reilly this season. She announced just before the 2019 campaign that this year would be her last, and she looked to be sort of a super-sub for Riley.
But after injuries to Ryan Williams and draft pick Hailey Harbison, O’Reilly was suddenly the No. 2 option behind starter Merritt Mathias. Then, when Mathias went down in late September with a torn ACL, O’Reilly became the best option.
The Courage haven’t missed a beat with her in the lineup, and it gave O’Reilly the chance to end her career on a high note, playing instead of watching from the sideline.
“It’s about the team and our success this season. I was able to contribute to it, and I was happy to step into that role, especially later in the season. I’m proud of myself for that,” O’Reilly said. “It’s been frustrating for me at times in my career and being sort of pigeonholed in certain ways as a player, and for me to take this position on late in my career and to show versatility and responsibility as a defender is really great. I think I’ll look back and smile on that one.”
O’Reilly started Sunday, played 89 minutes at right back, took 57 touches and was 68% accurate on her 35 passes. She had one key pass and won a tackle, too. The victory over the Red Stars marked the fourth domestic league championship O’Reilly has won in her lengthy career, which also included three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title.
O’Reilly is retiring from playing, but she’s still going to be near the Courage and very much part of the women’s professional soccer conversation going forward. She has already started working in television as an analyst for Fox Sports and she also joined the coaching staff of her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Still, she’s going to miss playing the game.
“It’s not always smooth sailing, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” O’Reilly said. “That’s what sport is; that’s what life is. You kind of go through these incredible peaks and valleys, and you grow and you grow, and you do it all together. That’s the beauty of a team sport, to do it with these wonderful women.”