Former U.S. national team star Heather O'Reilly lives a soccer dream at Arsenal

Arsenal v Sunderland AFC Ladies FA WSL 1 Football Match, Bor-19122017-0002
New Jersey-born former United States women’s national soccer star Heather O’Reilly has been playing for Arsenal’s women’s team since the start of 2016.

Heather O’Reilly’s name has been engraved in the American soccer history books ever since she made her U.S. women’s national team debut as a high schooler in 2002.

In recent times, the northern New Jersey native has written a unique chapter in her own story. After ending her national team career in September of 2016, she decided to move abroad and sign with the women’s team of English soccer powerhouse Arsenal.

The 2015 World Cup-winner has flourished in North London, bringing a dash of star power to a team with a big brand name but far less recognition than the men’s squad.

Just as importantly for her, she has been able to fulfill a long-held dream.

“It was always this far-off thought that maybe I could do that at some point,” O’Reilly told the Inquirer and Daily News. “During my national team tenure, I never really considered playing overseas … When I retired internationally, it was an opportunity for me to sort of reflect and question if there was sort of still some stone left unturned.”

She knew plenty about Arsenal’s women’s team thanks to two friends there with connections to the United States. One was Gunners legend Kelly Smith, a teammate of O’Reilly’s on the old New Jersey Wildcats semi-pro team back in 2004. Another was Pedro Martínez Losa, an assistant coach for the former Western New York Flash who became Arsenal’s manager in 2014.

When O’Reilly was ready to move, she reached out to Losa to gauge his interest. There was plenty. So she traveled to London for a trial in October of 2016, and things took off from there.

It so happened that O’Reilly crossed the Atlantic at the same time as other Americans: Alex Morgan at Lyon, Crystal Dunn at Chelsea and Delran native Carli Lloyd at Manchester City.

But the timing wasn’t entirely coincidental. With the World Cup and Olympics in the rear view mirror, there was a window of time for American players to try something new. Modern technology also allows national team coaches to watch from home while players work abroad.

O’Reilly said that during her national team career, “I just felt as if I personally wanted to be Stateside in order to be seen and considered.” She also acknowledged that in the past, there were — she picked her words carefully here — “restrictions on players in terms of the amount that they can be gone.”

That was a reference to rules in old national team collective bargaining agreements which compelled players to stay home as they drew salaries from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Those restrictions were loosened in the new CBA signed last year.

There was also the practical matter of having a better presence in the national consciousness by playing in the domestic league. That’s changing too, as more European teams and leagues broadcast games worldwide.

“I think the modern football world will be one [where] at the end of the day, coaches should — and do — just want their players developing at the fastest rate possible for them to be at their best, to represent the country,” O’Reilly said. “It should be a matter of whichever club is providing that, I suppose.”

Arsenal has long been known for giving its women’s players a professional environment. The team has a proud tradition of developing English national team players, and developed one of the women’s game’s top coaches in NWSL veteran Laura Harvey.

These days, O’Reilly’s teammates hail from England, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Counterparts at Chelsea, Manchester City and other English clubs have helped raise the country’s standard across the board.

“I had high expectations, but I think they’ve surpassed them,” O’Reilly said. “I can’t speak to what it was like 10 years ago, but I suspect that the improvement has been fast, and the learning curve at the world level has been steep for these players.”

That rise is reflected in England’s standing as the No. 3-ranked team in the world, and the Netherlands’ title win at this past summer’s European Championships on home soil. Arsenal’s squad includes four Dutch players, including star playmaker Danielle van de Donk and striker Vivianne Miedema.

“It’s been a blast to play with [them], and there’s no doubt for me [about] how they were able to win the Euros, seeing those two connect on the training ground all the time,” O’Reilly said.

She would like to see those players and others give the NWSL a try, as Scottish midfielder Kim Little did when Harvey coached the Seattle Reign. The league’s enforced competitive balance makes for a different environment than Europe, where a small group of big spenders rules the scene.

“The parity of the NWSL [makes] it a little bit stronger still” than Europe, O’Reilly said. “I think they would pick up a lot themselves in terms of everything that everybody knows the U.S. has to offer: the athleticism, the competitiveness, the grind of some of the summer games in the U.S. That could be really good for these players, and I think it would be really phenomenal for the league as well.”

Recently, some of those players have been involved in labor disputes similar to the ones the U.S. women’s team has fought over the years. There is a global movement for women’s soccer players to get better salaries and playing conditions, and O’Reilly is cheering it on.

“As a female athlete you love to see that, because as much as we all do this for the love of the game, there’s a certain time that things are just not fair, and completely outdated,” she said. “It’s been great to see teams step up for what they feel like they deserve. I certainly don’t think we’re there yet, and I’m sure there will be more disputes in the future. If the U.S. team has been role models in any way in that respect, I think that’s something we’re very proud of.”

Her contract at Arsenal ends when the season concludes in late spring. She isn’t sure yet what she’ll do after that, but she’s leaving her options open. She might continue playing.

Whenever O’Reilly hangs up her cleats, she’ll have plenty of opportunities to stay in soccer. One could be television. She worked as an analyst for British broadcasts of the Euros, and enjoyed it. Along the way, she got to pick the brains of English men’s players who made the move to TV, including stars Michael Owen and Ian Wright.

“It was a lot of fun meeting those guys and sharing stories and learning from some of the best in the business,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my life calling, but I do think it’s a good way to stay involved in the game at an interesting level.”

The next big TV opportunity will come during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. If Fox asks her to join their crew for the occasion, would she be interested?

“I think so, yeah,” she answered. “I would like to get some more reps under my belt in terms of analysis. I think it’s a lot of fun. So yeah, I’d definitely throw my hat into the ring.”

In the short term, O’Reilly is coming home to New Jersey this week to run a soccer clinic on Friday in Monroe. She also has an eye on the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election, because she’s on the athletes’ council that has a say in the process.

Like many other members of the athletes’ council, O’Reilly didn’t want to discuss specifics about the election.

“We have some time to consider, and come February I think that after thoughtful conversations and discussion, we’ll have a clearer view,” she said.

But she said a few things about the state of the landscape in general.

“I am the eternal optimist,” she said. “I choose to look at our men’s team not qualifying [for the 2018 World Cup] as a disappointment and a step back in certain regards, but I think if you look at it has galvanized our soccer community even further. And of course, there’s a lot of different opinions and ideas and conversation and debate going on. I truly hope that it propels our sport in years to come going forward.”

Many observers have noted that the conversation and debate around the election has focused almost entirely on men’s soccer, and relatively little on women’s soccer. O’Reilly has seen the same thing.

“The U.S. women’s team has done great, it’s still ranked No. 1 by FIFA, so maybe [the perception is] there’s nothing to be concerned about?” she said. “I would love for all the candidates to dig in a little bit further. … We need, obviously, a lot of things in terms of player development and coach development, and to get a lot more women into coaching and management at a high level. I don’t think it’s being focused on enough.”

With the election under two months away, the time for that focus is now. It won’t surprise anyone if O’Reilly has a say in making it happen, even from overseas.