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Jessica McDonald nearly quit soccer, now she’s NWSL champion, MVP

North Carolina Courage's Jessica McDonald (14) heads a ball on goal during the NWSL Championship game against the Portland Thorns in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. The Courage won 3-0. (Adam Lapierre/The Oregonian via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. — A few seasons ago, Jessica McDonald seriously considered quitting soccer.

The 30-year-old forward couldn’t help thinking back to that time Saturday evening, after leading the North Carolina Courage to a history-making 3-0 romp past the Portland Thorns in the NWSL final. So it’s not hard for her to imagine a life without the two NWSL championships, two NWSL shields, an International Champions Cup medal and this year’s NWSL title game MVP award in her trophy collection.

From 2013 through 2016, McDonald played for five different teams: the Chicago Red Stars, the Seattle Reign, the Portland Thorns, the Houston Dash and the Western New York Flash. Each time she was traded, she changed cities and homes with her husband and their young son, who was born in 2012. When the Flash were sold and moved to North Carolina to become the Courage, the family was upended again.

Even before then, she went halfway around the world to play for the Melbourne Victory in Australia not long after giving birth. And prior to joining Melbourne, she became pregnant while rehabbing a knee injury suffered during her rookie year with the Chicago Red Stars in 2010.

“There were times that I thought about retiring,” she said. “But I continued to stay motivated. I stayed motivated for my kid, especially. … I just didn’t want to give up so easily. So I just continued my journey, and here I am.”

Here she is indeed, not just winning games but earning well-deserved time in the spotlight. McDonald led the NWSL in assists this season with eight and scored three of her 10 goals in the playoffs.

McDonald isn’t one of the NWSL’s big stars. If she’s on the United States national team’s depth chart these days, she’s far down it. Her only cap came in November of 2016, and her last call-up was for the 2017 SheBelieves Cup.

But there’s no question she’s essential for the Courage. In turn, McDonald cherishes not just the success she has achieved, but the stability she has achieved in North Carolina.

“I finally found a home,” she said. “I finally found a place where I’m comfortable, and my kid is comfortable as well. That kind of comfort sort of gives me some kind of motivation.”

You don’t often hear players talk about their off-the-field lives in front of a fleet of reporters and cameras – especially when drenched in Champagne from a trophy-clinching celebration moments earlier. But McDonald was happy to let it all out.

“The fact that this team really wants to continue to want me with their organization, it’s kind of nice for me as an individual,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, with a kid, it’s kind of hard to move from place to place — finding a new school, finding new people to get comfortable with. The fact that we’re in the same place once again, and want to continue to be, it’s kind of nice. It’s a little less stress for me as a mom, and as a professional athlete as well.”

Courage manager Paul Riley, seated next to McDonald on the postgame podium, lavished praise on a player who’s been part of his core group for three years.

“I don’t know if you can write a better script,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I thought if we could get four or five [goals] out of Jess, we’d be good, and get 10 to 12 games out of her. But as the season went on, she got better and better.”

Then came the biggest compliment of all.

“And she’s a mom,” Riley said. “After practice, we go home, I do a bit of reading and the rest of them [players] probably sleep. But this one has to work even harder with a kid. So I give her an amazing amount of credit. What a leader she has been in the locker room, and what a leader off the field.”

Heather O’Reilly was among many Courage players who paid tribute to McDonald. O’Reilly only knew of McDonald from afar for many years, but was impressed with what she saw. She has been even more impressed since joining the Courage this summer.

“Every team she’s been on, she’s been a goal scorer, she’s had a tough mentality, and she’s done really fantastic in the league,” she said. “She’s a wonderful mom. She’s a wonderful teammate. … And I think she wants to learn, and she wants to get better, and she wants to give. She’s a really generous person in terms of her energy on and off the field, and I think she has a really good heart.”

After such a great year, can McDonald make it back to the national team? It would be tough for any veteran player, but it’s especially tough right now, with just over eight months to go until the World Cup. It’s not a stretch to say that as many as 22 of the 23 spots on the U.S. squad are already spoken for, assuming they all stay healthy.

(And assuming they qualify, of course, which… well… that’s its own story.)

But as Courage teammate McCall Zerboni has shown this year, it might still be possible to make the jump.

“Jess Mac asked me, what, three months ago, ‘Have I got a chance to get back on the national team?’ ” Riley said, and McDonald backed up the story. “I looked at her honestly and said, ‘I don’t know, Jess. You’re going to have to play really well. You’re getting older now.’ ”

Then Riley turned from the cameras to the player and said, “You’re knocking on a few doors after that one.” 

In the coming months, we’ll find out if those knocks were loud enough for national team coach Jill Ellis to hear them.

Jonathan Tannenwald is the soccer beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He covered the NWSL championship game for Pro Soccer USA. See more of his work at philly.com/jtannenwald, and follow him on Twitter at @thegoalkeeper.

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