The former U.S. midfielder said this year’s group took things a step further while playing a vital part in growing the women’s game
Former U.S. women’s national team star Heather O’Reilly says she was proud of how bold this year’s World Cup-winning group was while using their stage to be more influential than any team that preceded them.
The U.S. ran rampant through France this summer to seal the team’s fourth World Cup title, topping the Netherlands in the finale while taking down strong sides like England and hosts France along the way.
Throughout that run, they were as confident and bold off of the field as they were on it, drawing criticism throughout the tournament for their perceived lack of sportsmanship as well as their political discussions.
Alex Morgan was the subject of criticism for her tea-drinking celebration in the semi-final win over England, while the team as a whole came under fire for a 13-0 battering of Thailand in the opening match of the tournament.
And Megan Rapinoe, who emerged with the Golden Boot and Golden Ball, was consistently engaged in a war of words with U.S. president Donald Trump while also campaigning for equal pay and equal treatment for women’s players.
But O’Reilly, who won three Olympic gold medals and the 2015 World Cup as a member of the USWNT, believes that the ideas of being bold, outspoken and confident is in the team’s DNA and is something that predates this current group, even if they took it one step further than the teams that came before.
“I think that forever and ever our team has been about winning. We’ve never really been shy about that,” O’Reilly told Goal. “Even since the early 90s with the creation of the national team, it’s been about winning championships and anything less than winning is not our standard. That’s nothing new.
“The way that the team stepped into the spotlight and was very bold and unapologetic in the way that they approached things, I’m really proud of them because maybe they’re being more influential with their platform than we were in the past. I think that’s an incredible thing and that’s really important for the growth of this sport and the growth of women’s sports.
“Get it done on the field and use your platform off the field. That seems like a good game plan to me.”
While this USWNT proved as influential as any group that preceded them, the next step is keeping the focus on the women’s game on the club level.
Fans turn out in droves in World Cup years and when the Olympics come into the spotlight, but establishing sustained interest outside of those time periods has been a challenge for the National Women’s Soccer League.
With ESPN picking up a deal to broadcast the league for the rest of the ongoing season and with clubs stepping up efforts to market returning World Cup stars, the next few months will be vital for the NWSL to develop new fans and, ultimately, try to keep hold of them in non-World Cup years.
O’Reilly, who plays for the North Carolina Courage and has previously played overseas with Arsenal, says she has seen growth throughout her 15-year professional career, but there are still big steps that need to be made for the women’s game to become truly appreciated at the local, national and international level.
“My shout to fans is if you fell in love with the team or fell in love with players, stay in love. Keep following them,” she said. “Communities are craving being a part of something and I think that being part of club football is the next frontier for the women’s national team. It happens a lot more than every four years. If people have an appetite for that now, they can see it a lot more often.
She added: “We have to continue to find ways to reinvent the league here and make it an attractive bit of entertainment. No one is going to come because they should or because they should support women’s sports. I mean, that’s great and if you feel inclined to do that, then that’s fantastic, but I think the fan bases really will come when they feel part of something exciting and feel entertained and feel like they’re part of a community.”
O’Reilly is set to retire at the end of the 2019 NWSL season, ending a career that saw her claim two NWSL titles while also earning a nomination for the FIFA Puskas award in 2011.
Having already tried her hand at broadcasting, the midfielder says she hopes to pursue that once her career is over.
O’Reilly retired from the international game in 2016 and, having watched this past World Cup as a fan, broadcaster and former team-mate of those involved, she found a new appreciation for the team while reflecting on her own time with that group.
“It was awesome. I would say this felt like it was my fourth World Cup, three as a player and the fourth on the sidelines, but I still felt part of it in a different way,” she said.
“I had a broader appreciation for the tournament overall because when you’re a player you’re so in the zone and focused on your task, but being able to see the team from afar, I could appreciate what I was a part of for 14 years.
“I was so proud of the team. They backed up their words with action and they won it and they did it in style. I was thrilled to be able to talk about them in a positive way.”
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