Heather O’Reilly recently played her first soccer game in her native New Jersey since returning to the NWSL after a year and a half at fabled English club Arsenal.
You’d think that would be a big deal, but it didn’t feel that way. The announced crowd at Rutgers’ Yurcak Field on July 14 for the visit of O’Reilly’s North Carolina Courage to Sky Blue FC was just 2,376, and the nearby parking lots were mostly empty until just before kickoff.
Granted, the 33-year-old O’Reilly has made her home in North Carolina for many years, save for her time in London. The fans who did show up certainly recognized her, especially the hordes of kids from her old youth club. But the lack of fanfare felt right in line with how O’Reilly’s return to America has played out overall. She’s happy to be just one part of a team that’s already the NWSL’s best.
“They’re having a lot of success, and hopefully I can provide one other piece that they didn’t have before,” she said. “The whole team has been super-welcoming, and even though I’m the most experienced player … I’m happy to learn, and if I can make the team better, I’m happy to do that.”
I went to the University of North Carolina as an 18 year old kid with a dream. 15 years later, around the world and back again, I’m playing in this place again and couldn’t be happier. Home. https://t.co/qQTy6Al7EO
— Heather O'Reilly (@HeatherOReilly) June 28, 2018
Her desire to learn is as strong as it was when she left for London in 2016 after retiring from the U.S. national team.
“I can always learn from a 23-year-old that’s been around all season,” she said. “When you don’t want to learn anymore and you don’t want to get better, you should probably hang them up, and I’m not there right now.”
Courage midfielder Samantha Mewis is a little bit older than that, but the 25-year-old has definitely been around. Her box-to-box skills fuel the engines of her club and the U.S. national team. She also confesses to having been an O’Reilly fan since well before the players’ national team tenures briefly overlapped.
“To get to play with a legend like HAO [O’Reilly’s nickname] once is a dream come true, but to get her to be on this team now is, like, too much to ask for,” Mewis said. “I’m so happy for my teammates that they get to experience playing with someone like this.”
Paul Riley, the former Philadelphia Independence manager who now coaches the Courage powerhouse, was, of course, thrilled to bring O’Reilly aboard.
“She has seamlessly fit in,” Riley said. “She’s a treasure to have on the team.”
O’Reilly has fit in well off the field too. She invited the whole squad to watch the France-Belgium men’s World Cup semifinal at the Chapel Hill coffee shop she bought and saved from going out of business.
As happy as O’Reilly is to be back in Chapel Hill, there are parts of London that it will never replicate. There’s something to be said for living in one of the world’s most powerful cities, and being part of one of international soccer’s most famous teams.
“I was living in the center of London for a long time, and playing at this massive football club, and I felt as if it was a club that’s a big part of global football,” she said.
The NWSL hasn’t always been a big part of global football. It has a well-earned reputation for quality soccer, but its teams don’t play against the rest of the world. That will finally change later this month, when the Courage participate in the first-ever women’s International Champions Cup. They’ll join Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and star-studded, three-time reigning Champions League winner Lyon. Although the Courage’s current U.S. national team stars will be away at the Tournament of Nations, it will nonetheless be a big occasion.
“Everybody knows the national team, and everybody follows the World Cup and the Olympics and even the Euros in Europe, but a lot of stuff goes on in between those tournaments,” O’Reilly said. “Women’s club football is certainly the next frontier.”
That applies to the U.S., too, even with all the NWSL has done in its six-year history.
“My experience in England opened my eyes to global women’s club football, and how it’s getting better and better,” O’Reilly said. “The U.S. has to continue to develop the club system, because these teams in Europe have 10-month [seasons], top-notch professional training grounds, and these players are very good.”
A few moments later, O’Reilly walked across the field to the small, sparse visitors’ locker room under Yurcak Field’s single stand of bleachers.
That, too, was a sign that she was back home.