CARY, N.C. — She’s 34 years old and soon-to-be-retired, but Heather O’Reilly still has it.
The result was well in-hand Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park, with the North Carolina Courage holding a 4-1 lead over the Orlando Pride in the 85th minute. But, on the night the club celebrated the veteran’s career, O’Reilly saw a chance and she took it.
After corralling a long pass from McCall Zerboni, O’Reilly dribbled a bit and then unleashed a right-footed shot from just outside the box. The ball sailed past diving Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and rocked the back of the cage. O’Reilly took a bow and an announced crowd of 9,563 fans screamed with joy.
But the girl they call “HAO” wasn’t done. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, the three-time gold medalist and 2015 World Cup winner pounced on a loose ball, drove into the box and fed teammate Debinha for another Courage goal.
In front of that regular season record crowd, O’Reilly was given a proper sendoff to a historic 17-season career as the Courage won 6-1. It was the second straight game the Courage scored six goals, and the win put them four points ahead of the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League table.
“It was a huge performance from everyone. This team is special and this community is special. What a dream for me to wrap up my career here,” O’Reilly said. “This game would’ve meant a whole lot less if we didn’t get three points. So, I’m super thrilled with the performance of the team, obviously. This group is special and it’s a privilege for me to be a part of it.”
O’Reilly announced prior to the start of this season that this would be her final campaign in professional soccer. She’s already doing broadcasting work for Fox Sports and was recently hired on Anson Dorrance’s staff at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to be an assistant coach.
Prior to Saturday night, O’Reilly had played 66 minutes across eight NWSL games. She also appeared in both International Champions Cup games for the Courage, notching an assist in a win over Manchester City. But Saturday was her first start of 2019 and she played more than 90 minutes.
O’Reilly initially slotted in at right back, but in the second half – once the Courage had a comfortable lead – head coach Paul Riley pushed her further up the field, deploying the veteran as an attacking midfielder. And that’s when she was able to deliver the fireworks.
Before her 85th minute score, O’Reilly had a good look at goal from the other side of the box, but Harris got a glove on her left-footed shot in the 72nd minute. Harris couldn’t quite reach O’Reilly’s next attempt, though.
“I tried it another way and cut in off the right, and I just bent it with power,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve been playing this game a long time, 17 years at this elite level, so I hope I can bring skills and goals like that, but to do it in a match of this occasion is obviously huge. I’m super proud.”
👏 H 👏 A 👏O 👏@HeatherOReilly marks her night with a special strike, and takes the bow she deserves. 🙌
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 15, 2019
The goal was O’Reilly’s first of the season, and it came on the same pitch where she netted her first score for the U.S. national team in 2002, via an assist from Julie Foudy. O’Reilly went on to be one of the most-capped players in U.S. history, appearing 231 games. After the game, the Courage played a tribute video on the Jumbotron for O’Reilly and presented her with a framed kit.
Also notching goals for the Courage were Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and McKenzie Meehan. In the 37th minute, Orlando defender Kristen Edmonds mistakenly knocked a cross from Jaelene Hinkle into the Pride’s net, committing an unfortunate own goal. Hinkle was active on the wing, also providing the assist to McDonald’s goal in the 41st minute.
“Jae Hinkle is the best left back in the country, maybe the world. She’s unbelievable today, again,” Riley said. “That goal to Jess-Mac today, that was – she’s done it for weeks and weeks, and months and months, and years and years, and I want people to recognize that this is a great footballer here. Nobody has a left foot like Jae Hinkle in this country. She’s got speed, she’s got skill, …and she’s gotten better defensively. She’s evolved into such a fantastic player.”
😍 take a bow, @J_Mac1422!
Picture perfect finish to give @TheNCCourage their third of the night.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 14, 2019
The Pride’s lone goal came in the 82nd minute from Rachel Hill. In all, the Courage dominated the match, controlling 67 percent of possession, outshooting the Pride 23-4 and completing 82 percent of their passes.
Aside from the late Pride goal, the only other sore spot for the Courage on an otherwise exceptional night came in the 14th minute, when Abby Dahlkemper misfired on a penalty kick attempt and Harris saved her right-footed shot in the bottom right corner of the net.
The penalty was drawn by Kristen Hamilton, who exited the game after Dahlkemper’s penalty miss.
With back-to-back six-goal performances, the first-place Courage are clicking at the right time. Just four games remain in the NWSL regular season, and the Courage will host the seventh-place Houston Dash on Tuesday. Another three points could further cement the Courage’s top-of-the-table position.
“I think the team is just jelling really well. We’ve got all of the national team players back. I heard them singing tonight before the game in the locker room, and it just feels like the light switch has been put on,” Riley said. “I feel like we’re all on the same page. I don’t know what happens from here, but I feel like we’re together… I’m excited about the next few weeks.”
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) September 15, 2019