The Interview: Heather O'Reilly
The World Cup and Olympic champion explains why she came out of retirement to join Irish champion Shelbourne FC
One of my favorite stories in recent years came during the 2016 Olympics, when I interviewed Heather O’Reilly—who won one World Cup and three Olympic gold medals—about why she had decided to be an alternate for the U.S. team, which meant unless a surprise injury happened she wouldn’t even get a medal if the U.S. had won one. It became a discussion on why you play the sport, and what it means to be a competitor. And it dovetails nicely with O’Reilly’s recent decision to come out of retirement and join Irish champion Shelbourne FC. O’Reilly always wanted to play in the UEFA Champions League, but she never did. Now, at 37, she’s getting the chance.
The entirety of the written interview below is reserved for paid subscribers. As always, you can still get the entire free audio version of my podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods.
Our guest now is an old friend and World Cup and Olympic champion. Heather O'Reilly just came out of retirement and joined Irish champion Shelbourne FC, which will be competing in the UEFA Champions League this season. HAO, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks, Grant. Yep, nice to see you again and nice to work with you in a different context once again.
Exactly. I mean, this is a really cool story and I think surprised some folks, but we want to know more about it. So a simple question to start, why did you want to do this?
“[Megan] Rapinoe wrote to me from the bus over in Seattle, just kind of like, ‘We love you. You’re nuts. Get after it.’” — Heather O’Reilly
Well, it's a pretty simple and pure story. I got to fulfill a lot of my soccer dreams during my career, obviously winning a World Cup, winning a bunch of Olympic medals. I played at my dream university at UNC and won a couple championships there. And then when I sort of got into my mid-thirties, I decided to ply my trade over in Europe since that was something that I never really had an opportunity to do. I always felt like when I was with the U.S. national team and the way that it was sort of structured before, I never had the guts, I guess, to go to Europe because I never wanted to miss any training camps with the U.S. women's national team. And I also just felt like I needed to be in the U.S. to be sort of seen, evaluated and selected.
So for me, going to Arsenal was something after I had retired from the U.S. women's national team that I wanted to go do. And I had a wonderful experience for 18 months. When I came onto the team, we had gotten third place the year before. And at that point there was only two spots for Champions League for the English league, and now that it has expanded to three, but at that point there were only two. So we missed out. So when I went to Arsenal, I knew that I wasn't going to be playing Champions League football, but I said, "Okay, I've done a lot of things. It's not a huge deal, never played Champions League. Maybe by the end of my time there, I can get them back to Champions League football, that would be a great goal." In the end, we wound up getting third again.
And it was a good experience over there, but to be honest, the tail end of my time at Arsenal was very difficult for me. It was like if I had to say the darkest and worst patch of my life, I would probably say that was it. I think I was internalizing a lot in terms of what I sort of saw was the end of my career. And you hear about kind of like the grieving process of an athlete, and I think that this anxiety and stress that maybe this was it for me was stressing me a lot. And so, yeah, I didn't end well, put it that way, with my stint at Arsenal.
So I came back to the U.S., I played for another year and half for North Carolina, but I always sort of like had, I don't know, this unsettled feeling of my time over in Europe. And also we didn't qualify for the Champions League that year either, we got third. So I felt like there was some unfinished business. And listen, I'm a competitor, I'm passionate, I get these things in my head and I need to like do them, right? So then I hung up my boots, I thought was hanging up my boots in North Carolina and I had two kids and coach at UNC and do some TV work, but there was always this bit of annoying unfinished business. Like I said, I never played Champions League. I thought that the dream was dead, but I rose it up and the dream is still alive and yeah, I sort of made it happen.
That's really cool. How did this particular club and you come together?
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So I guess it all starts a couple of months ago when I took part in Soccer Aid, actually Carli [Lloyd] was asked to play in it, and I think the Soccer Aid folks, I don't know if they needed more women or what, but they asked Carli, "Do you have any other former teammates that would be good for Soccer Aid?" And she immediately thought of me because I play pick up quite a bit and play with my team at UNC. So I played Soccer Aid, which was wonderful. And to lace them up with … I was on the right wing, Cafú was behind me, and Patrice Evra was on the team and Shevchenko and Usain Bolt up top. So we had a blast, and Arsène Wenger was my manager and Carli and I definitely held our own with the guys, Carli was still quite good at soccer for anybody that's wondering.
But after I was chatting with Arsène just about our time over at Arsenal, because his final season was when I was over there as well, and we had spoken a few times at the training ground in like the line for salad bar, basically, in the canteen after training. But it was nice to reconnect with him and he said [starting Wenger impression], "Heather, you are still very good. Why did you stop? You should continue to play football." And I said, "Thanks, Arsène. I don't know. I did it. I did it all. I really kind of left everything I have for the game. And I have these two little kids now, and I’m coaching doing all this stuff." He goes, "Well, you should still play." And I said, "Well, I've never played Champions League, that did always bother me." He goes, "You should do it."
And so I don't know, like I puffed my chest out and if Arsène Wegner says that I still got it, I think I still got it. So that trip kind of came and went, and I was starting to sort of have this thought in my head, and then fast forward a few weeks later, and actually with Carli, Alexi Lalas, myself and a bunch of others are part of a group now called the Next 90, which was a FIFA project of former players, it's essentially a year-long course for former players transitioning to whatever you're doing next. It just equips you with some business classes and things like that, just all kinds of things if you want to start your own business, if you want to be a director somewhere of a club. And yeah, so we've had a blast, but it's all virtual except for this one in-person meeting.
And so we all went to Zurich and we played a friendly match. I was on Alexi’s team. I think we lost, I missed a peno, which was disappointing. Anyways, so that got us kind of talking again, like at a dinner table that I never played Champions League, that I always wanted to. And people there are like, "Heather, if you want to play Champions League, you can play Champions League. There's like 70 clubs that are going to be in Champions League, at least trying to qualify. I'm sure we could find some place for you." And so actually what happened is we pulled up the UEFA website and I started to do some research into what could be some really interesting projects for me. And it has to be the right fit, right? I'm 37, I haven't played in two and a half years and it's sort of like, what would be a good fit? What would suit me and what would suit them and be sort of like a win-win for both sides?
I did consider FC Zurich there for a while. I was going to work with Arsène and do sort of like an internship for a number of months, but work permit stuff, Swiss law, was a little bit too complicated. It was going to take too long. By that point, Champions League would be over. Anyways, so I reached out actually to Shelbourne, and they wrote back right away and were like, "Yes, this is awesome. We know all about you." Noel King used to coach the women's national team for Ireland and way back he tried to look into my Irish, I guess, ancestry, but my great, great, great grandparents had come over to the U.S., so that wasn't even a possibility even back in the day.
But anyways, so we've faced up against each other for many years. Noel King is the head coach here now. And yeah, one thing led to another, I persuaded my husband to come over and make a trip of it. And the team is heading to Slovenia now in a few days for our first Champions League game on August 18. So for all that are listening, follow your dreams, you're not too old, it's not too late, take it from me.
Thank you for sharing all of that. That's such an awesome story. It almost makes me wish there was some sort of video series being filmed right now about this experience. But, so Arsène Wegner, good impression, by the way. I didn't know you had that in you.
Yeah, well I did that for somebody else the other day. They're like, I don't know who Swedish Arsene Wenger is, but that's not exactly his accent. I said I'm trying my best. I'm from Jersey living in Ireland, there's a lot of different accents flying around.
So how does Champions League work with this team, are there qualifying games or how is this set up?
Yep. So there's been some iterations of women's Champions League, like structure and setup. So essentially some nations in Europe, obviously their champion goes, but then they maybe have two spots or three spots, like I was referring to England having, but Ireland just has the one spot. So there's sort of like a champions side and then there's a league side, which includes some of the clubs that maybe didn't finish first, but they're considered one of the more prominent leagues in Europe. I think like in Spain they have maybe two spots, in France, England, Denmark, places like that have multiple entrants.
So there's sort of these two paths, you play against each other. Right now it's sort of like pods of four. So we'll go over to Slovenia, play the champion of Slovenia, but also playing there will be the champions of Armenia playing the champions of Iceland. So after we play Slovenia, which is considered the semifinal, we'll hopefully play the winner of those two, and Iceland has a good chance to beat that team. So if we win those semifinals and final, then we'll continue on and do the same thing once again. And at that point it will be some more difficult teams in the mix, but it would be a few more rounds until we could face the likes of an Arsenal or Barcelona, and what a dream that would be.
So my goal, obviously, it was just a suit up for Champions League, but now because I'm a competitor and I try to be a winner, if I could help the team get to the group stages, that would be, I think, a huge success and a huge step forward for the league here and the team here. The league here is very much like a feeder program, I would say, to even the league in Scotland and in England. This is totally amateur, not even allowed to receive money if they wanted to. It's fully non-professional, put it that way. Our training sessions are at night. A lot of people either work or are students and yeah, we train three days a week at night and play a match on the weekend. So still a lot of work needed here.
But the level's good, and they are about two thirds of the way through the season right now. It's set up the same as NWSL. So not a winter league like England would be. So yeah, we have a bunch of cup games and a bunch of league games, so I'm playing in those as well in order to sort of get to know my teammates so we have the best chance that we can have going over to Slovenia, which I've never been to by the way, I heard it's a lovely country. Have you been?
I have not been to Slovenia. I know … mountains. When the U.S. men played Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup, and tied 2-2, but U.S. was down 2-0 in that game, and they had some good players, Slovenia, former Yugoslav republic. It's amazing how many former Yugoslav republics have qualified for major tournaments. It makes you wonder how good just one Yugoslavia would be. But I remember the shirts that Slovenia wore, we called them the Charlie Brown shirts, because they actually had the mountains in a diagonal on them. So I just told you literally everything I know about the country of Slovenia, so I'm sure you'll learn much more.
Yeah. We head there on the 16th. So I'll hopefully have some photos and a little bit more to report back on. I don't know much about it either, and I'm excited for this adventure.
Will we be able to see it if we wanted to watch these games you're playing in?
Hmm, shoot, I wish I knew the answer for that for this interview. We'll have to do an editor's note and add to it. I'm sure there'll be streaming of it. It's 2022, there's got to be an online streaming somewhere. Maybe ATA Football will pick it up somehow through the Slovenian stream. I hope so. And if I get it, I will make sure I blast it out. I'm already sending all my friends like Shelbourne FC t-shirts. The gear is actually quite cool, it's like old school Umbro stuff. And yeah, I'm digging it so far.
And so are you still going to be able to coach and do television with this?
Yep, so unless we make this miraculous Champions League run, which I don't put it past us and myself, but if we do not, the season ends November 1. So Anson Dorrance, who's my boss at UNC, has been very gracious, he knows how my brain works and it's sort of guided me through my life so far that yeah, if I get an idea, I need to see it through. So I've been talking about this Champions League thing for years now, and he knows that I have an opportunity to go do it. Actually he said, "Heather, I hope you go, you have a blast, play well. I hope you lose immediately and come home as soon as possible."
That sounds very Anson. You didn't do an Anson voice impression there.
[Tries Dorrance impression] "Hey, good luck Heath, I hope you lose, come home early, but good luck," that would be more what it's like. I said, "Thanks for the support, Anson," and walked out the door, but I'm the second assistant with UNC. I mean, I'm watching as much as I can watch. They just had their beep test and their early scrimmages for the season. And so I can watch some of those and kind of give some feedback. So I think that the team was excited for me. They saw me running some sprints while they were running sprints, getting ready for their beep test, I was running sprints. And they're like, "What are you running for?" Even though it's not super unique to see me getting a hard workout in. So I told them, they were excited. I think they're like, "Oh gosh, you're a little crazy," but also like I said, I always wanted to play Champions League, I never did it. And it's essentially now or never. I don't want to write off me in my forties, but I mean, I am 37, so I think it's safe to say that it is now or never for me to fulfill this dream.
And how has it felt so far, your playing interactions with your new teammates?
It's felt fine, it's felt fine. It's like an old comfy glove, putting it back on. I mean, like I said, I played Soccer Aid, I play like in Chapel Hill, there's a Monday-Wednesday-Friday pick up game. We call it noon ball even though we play at 11 AM, for some reason we still call it noon ball. It's essentially a lunchtime 5-a-side league. There were only two teams. But yeah, so, I mean, I have been touching the ball a little bit. Clearly 5-a-side is not the same thing as playing a 90 minute 11-a-side match. So I'm still kind of gaining my fitness back. I wanted to make sure that when I came over here, I didn't try to be a hero and do too much too soon and like pull a hammy or something, because that would be a total bust. So I've just made sure that I'm taking care of my body and just taking it slow to sort of gear up for that game.
That being said, I did jump in the first match. I was home, got off the red-eye on Friday morning, then we traveled like three hours the next day up to a place called Sligo, and they tied it up 2-2. So a bunch of us went in the game, even though it's probably not the smartest thing for me to do, considering everything I just said about taking care of my body, and then Sligo scored right after we went in, it was devastating. And then they were treating it like the World Cup final. I mean, to be fair, they scored great goals and they defended well, and we just could not get a goal there at the end. And then they all rushed the field, I think because they were like second to last and we’re top of the league. And then plus with the news of me coming, it was really kind of David taking down Goliath. So that wasn't an awesome entrance for me into my debut, my repeated debut for the league here, but what can you do? We'll bounce back, and we actually have a cup game tomorrow and then another league game next week and then we head to Slovenia.
Yeah, we're talking on Friday, August 5, coming out Monday the 8th. And what has the response been to your decision here? Whether it's from your former teammates on the national team or people like that or in Ireland, what has the response been too?
Oh, I guess I'll do the Ireland part first. The team thought it was hilarious. They kind of essentially laughed, I guess, because yeah, not to toot my own horn, but this club has never had a World Cup champion come over here. Actually Damien Duff is the men's coach, and you might remember that name. He played for Chelsea in like mid-2000s for Chelsea, Newcastle for a few years. And he made a joke, when he heard that I might be coming over, he's like, "Well, if it doesn't work for the women's team, we'll take you on the men's team."
And so the club was fired up. I mean just in terms of like the PR side of things, and it made a splash, to be honest, as it rose some eyebrows. It was interesting, I think. And a whole lot of people know about Shelbourne FC now that maybe didn't before, which is the whole point. So yeah, it was big. It was like, yeah, it got good news pick-up. I was actually supposed to be on one of the late-night shows today and I think it's got bumped next week, but yeah. So doing all that kind of fun stuff.
And then back home, yeah, I think that my national team teammates, a couple of them wrote to me like Tobin and Rapinoe wrote to me from the bus over in Seattle, just kind of like, "We love you. You're nuts. Get after it." I don't think people are super surprised because I am pretty intense and always going to be in shape, and I love the game. So it's not like I'm the most surprising one to come out of retirement, but yeah, I think that people think that it's like pretty random but awesome. And just think it's fun that, yeah, I'm following a dream and making it happen.
Couple more questions with Heather O'Reilly, really appreciate you taking the time. We've just seen the Euros end in England. We've seen England win that tournament in a very exciting way. And in my opinion, the story I wrote afterward was basically saying this was England's 1999, which I know it's not a hundred percent the same, but there's some similarities there. I mean, what were you thinking having played in England when you were watching this last weekend?
Oh, I was thrilled for them. So I went over to Arsenal in 2017. So it's a number of years ago now. And I think that my first impressions of going over there was like, this is a sleeping giant. This country, the infrastructure, the support of football is all right there, really all that needs to happen is a bit of an influx of money, but also an influx of care for women's football and respect for the game. And sometimes I think that frustrated me a lot being over there because I've spent so much of my life in the U.S. trying to make soccer relevant, and the women's national team obviously carried a big load for a long time, and I'm really proud of that.
But when I went over to England, it was very much like a gender thing because I'm like, oh, here we go, football is everywhere, in every pub, everybody knows all the teams and it's so ingrained in the culture. So the only thing that's missing is just the respect of women doing it. And so it was almost hurtful sometimes how little coverage and how little respect we had. For instance, I mean, Arsenal is one of the leaders in their women's side, but still say we were trying to use the gym at the same time as the under 17 boys or under 18 boys, it was like not even a question who would get priority of the gym, it was the boys. And same thing with using some of the facilities. It was always kind of like, I don't know, you just felt like you were receiving a crumb and like kind of grateful for it.
And so I am proud that I think I chipped away and at least to the players, just let them know that we deserve this. We are the first team, we're one of the best teams in England, you're a national team player. Just sort of continuing to sort of push the envelope. And yeah, I'm not saying I was any savior in any way, but I think that I did bring a little bit of dialogue to the club and to women's football over there.
And even with the FA, I would joke with the FA like, "Hey, you need to get these girls up on billboards, like make them stars." Everybody loves following the stars. And it was a little bit, they didn't want the league to grow too top-heavy, they wanted to rise everybody in the league. And I'm like, "I'm sorry to break it to you, that's going to take like a hundred years. You don't have time for that. Just let the front lead and carry everybody with you." And that's what we've seen with Emma Hayes at Chelsea and some things that are going on at Man City and even Arsenal. But I think that it was really almost like a self-belief thing that was missing in England.
And so I think you fast forward five years and they have this huge moment of sporting history. Yeah, like you said, Grant, it's really an uncanny comparison to a lot that happened in '99. Yeah, just one, the quality was so good. The goals that were scored in the tournament were incredible, and you have some personalities coming out, people starting to know the players. It seems, and I wasn't in the dressing room, but it seems like Sarina Wiegman really changed the mentality of the team to one of fun and joy, but also they used the word ruthlessness in a lot of interviews. I think that she kind of brought a little bit of, I don't know, a killer instinct. And I always thought that the underdog card that England tried to pull for a long time, I think historically, but also their women's team, it was holding them back. It was kind of like they were almost fearful to take this security blanket off. And finally, whatever happened over there, they did this tournament and they just played exceptionally well, looked like they had a lot of fun and they got it done at home. I mean, just an incredible achievement.
And I have a lot of friends on the team, like Leah Williamson's the captain, she was like 20 years old when I was over there, but she was so mature. I would ask her for advice. She was like a mentor to me, even though I had like 13 years on her. And Beth Mead is my good friend as well. So I was thrilled for them. They have a lot of Tar Heels on the team, a lot of UNC fingerprints all over that championship with Sarina Wiegman had played at UNC a while ago under Anson and then Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy and of course Lucy Bronze also played for season at UNC. So we're very proud of that. If we had any sort of, I don't know, imprint of competitive nature that helped them along the way, we'll take it.
It was amazing timing, the next day after England wins this, they announce that they're going to have a friendly at Wembley against the U.S. women's national team in October. And it sold out basically in 24 hours, which is just really cool to see because that's a giant stadium. I was reminded of that being there the other day, you're talking about almost 90,000 people. And we're starting to see this with some more frequency, right? With Barcelona getting more than 90,000 twice during their Champions League run this year, even Morocco drawing really well during hosting the African championship, Colombia hosting the Copa América and also qualifying for the World Cup. And it really does seem like there's a wave right now of attendance figures that we haven't seen before in women's soccer.
In terms of just sort of the matchup between England and the U.S., I think we have a potential for a great rivalry here. What are your thoughts? And even from just an on-field perspective, how would you compare these two teams right now and where they are a year out from the World Cup?
I think that they're very level, they're very even. I think yeah, all the sort of components that we had bit of an edge in terms of fitness, mentality, never say die attitude, all those sort of intangible things I think seemingly from their run in the Euros, they've taken a jump. And I think Sarina Wiegman's leadership there has been massive. They have a lot more time together right now at this point of the season. When you're in a major tournament like that, you're together for like five, six weeks. And so just playing those matches, having that camaraderie, I know that everybody will go home back to their clubs now for a number of weeks before getting back together for that friendly.
But I do think that they are essentially played in a little bit more than the U.S., even though the U.S. just had their qualifying run as well. So to be honest, I give a little bit of edge right now to England, just in terms of the form of the squad and the way that they were scoring goals. I think that they scored goals from all different ways, which was interesting, they had some really killer breakaway finishing, getting balls in behind, which you don't see too much with England before, scoring from corner kicks, scoring from some just cheeky plays from Alessia Russo. So their variety and their depth I thought was quite good.
I still don't think that anybody in the Euros is going to bring the same just wave after wave of speed that the U.S. has, especially right now with Sophia Smith and Rodman and Alex, we just have a lot of speed and direct play and transitional play that I think could hit them on the counter in a way that wasn't seen in the Euros. But the teams right now I think are very level in the way that they see themselves. I think that if you asked the U.S. team, like, "Are you the best team in the world?" Every single player would say with their chest out, like, "Yes, we're the best team in the world." If you ask England, "Are you the best team in the world?" Some of them might say like yeah, with a smile, some of them might say like, "We're getting there." And so I think that's just the difference in the demeanor right now between England and the U.S.
But yeah, what a game. I mean, I love that they're kind of striking while the iron's hot, as they say, and not just playing like a fluff opponent that they're going to knock home eight goals against, but playing the U.S. at Wembley. What an awesome opportunity for both teams, especially in the year leading up to the World Cup.
Heather O'Reilly will be playing in the UEFA Champions League for Shelbourne FC. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thanks, Grant. Thanks for having me. Keep up the great work.
"Heather, I hope you go, you have a blast, play well. I hope you lose immediately and come home as soon as possible."
Gotta love it! She sounds like she’s a lot of, just, FUN. So impressed she’s still chasing a dream. Thanks a ton, Grant. This one was exceptional, which is saying something.
Heather is a great commentator on BBC World Football. Her perspectives as an American and as a female footballer were sadly missing on “World” football shows for years. She adds depth and nuance to the show, and really great to see her back on the pitch as well!