When the 2019 NWSL season began, Heather O’Reilly wasn’t really in Paul Riley’s plans for right back. The head coach of the North Carolina Courage was deploying one of the best fullbacks in the game there – Merritt Mathias – as his starter, and had planned to use Ryan Williams and draft pick Hailey Harbison as depth.
O’Reilly was essentially fourth string. Only in an extreme emergency situation would she be called upon to start at right back, it seemed.
But due to injuries to all three of those players, it is O’Reilly, the battle-tested veteran, who will get the nod at right back Sunday when the Courage host Reign FC in the NWSL semifinals.
And O’Reilly will have a tough matchup in front of her, as she’ll be tasked with containing Megan Rapinoe, who appears to finally be fit for her club team.
“She’s got a tall order against Rapinoe, there’s no question,” Riley said during conference call Tuesday. “It’s certainly going to be a challenge. I think it’s important we all help Heather out from a defensive perspective.”
O’Reilly, 34, announced before the start of the season that the 2019 campaign would be her last in professional soccer. She retired from the U.S. national team in 2016 as one of its most decorated players, helping the USWNT win three Olympics and a World Cup. She has already begun the next phase of her career in soccer, working as a TV analyst for Fox Sports and as an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Riley used the oldest player on his team sparingly in the beginning of the season. Prior to Sept. 14 – her first start of the year – she had appeared in just eight NWSL games. She also appeared in both of the Courage’s International Champions Cup games.
O’Reilly got the starting nod that night in part to give Mathias – who was among the team’s leaders in minutes played – a break, but also because the Courage were honoring her that evening. O’Reilly celebrated in style, netting a goal and dishing out an assist in 89 minutes of play in a 6-1 win over the Orlando Pride.
It was assumed she would return to her role as a late-game sub. But then, in a game just three days later against the Houston Dash, Mathias suffered a torn ACL and was ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Suddenly, O’Reilly was needed to play big minutes, and she’s done that in the last three games, going a full 90 minutes in each match; two wins and one loss for the Courage.
“Luckily, she’s played there quite a bit in practice,” Riley said. “Certainly over the last few weeks we’ve been watching video, just talking about the defensive side. I think that’s the biggest thing. It took Merritt a couple of years to get the defensive side of the game. Obviously, she’s an attacking player, just like HAO is.”
One thing O’Reilly adds for the Courage is an expertise in corner kicks. O’Reilly has taken 20 of them over the last three matches, giving usual corner-kicker taker Debinha a break and allowing the creative Brazilian to get in the box or linger near its edges.
“The great thing about HAO, she’s probably better going forward than Merritt,” Riley said. “That cross… There’s no one better in the world. And you know, she doesn’t have to get to the end line to cross the ball, she can lace them, she texture them. She’s clever. She’s got a good mind for the game. When we’re in possession, she’s very, very good for us.”
Rapinoe and O’Reilly are the same age, but if the players had odometers they would read very different. O’Reilly began playing with the national team in 2002, while Rapinoe didn’t break in until 2006. O’Reilly has 231 caps with the USWNT, while Rapinoe has 160. And while O’Reilly is surely past her prime, Rapinoe seems to be in the midst of hers. This year, Rapinoe led the U.S. to World Cup victory, took home the Golden Ball, the Golden Boot and was named as the best women’s player in the world by FIFA.
Despite her accolades, Rapinoe has appeared in just five games for Reign FC this year as she battled an Achilles injury after the World Cup. The superstar looked to be in form earlier this month in Charlotte for a USWNT victory tour match against South Korea, as she dished out two assists in a U.S. victory.
Rapinoe could be a handful for O’Reilly, but if anyone is up to the task of marking one of the best players in the world, Riley believes it’s the kid they call HAO.
“She’s played for a long, long time and she’s watched a lot of tape recently too. I’ve sat down with her and I feel pretty confident with her,” Riley said. “She’s an experienced pro and a great competitor. She’s a hustle-and-bustle, born and built to play in these types of games.”
“I believe in her and I believe she’ll get the job done in the end.”