Heather O'Reilly far from done
Heather O'Reilly felt as if she had won the prize out of a cereal box when she was first asked to train with the United States women's national team, perhaps an apt metaphor given that she was 17 years old at the time. But there wasn't time for cereal when she and her roommate slept through breakfast during that initial stint with the team while in Portugal during the 2002 Algarve Cup. O'Reilly didn't figure anyone would notice if she didn't make an appearance first thing in the morning. As a typical teenager, the extra minutes of slumber were precious.
Unfortunately, people noticed. At the field, she learned the entire team would run dreaded 120s, length-of-the-field sprints, as punishment for the delinquency of its youngest members. All the players, newcomers and the veterans -- not three years removed from winning the World Cup in front of nearly 100,000 people in the Rose Bowl -- stood on the end line and awaited the command to begin. The dream rapidly degenerating into a nightmare, O'Reilly knew only that she had best put her touted speed to good use and finish first.
"They got all the way to the mid-stripe before they realized that none of us were with them," former United States defender Cat Whitehill said.
It turned out that the veterans and then-coach April Heinrichs had conspired to have some fun at their expense.
"I just busted out of the gate, hair on fire, and got about 50 yards out before I realized everybody else was laughing on the ground," O'Reilly said. "Sort of the overconfident teenager, I suppose, thinking I was significantly in front of the pack."
Which isn't to say the humility of age makes her more comfortable anywhere but out in front.
Even in the midst of the longest summer of a lengthy soccer life, with her Boston Breakers currently five points adrift at the bottom of the National Women's Soccer League table as they travel for Sunday's game against Portland Thorns FC (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET), O'Reilly embodies the advice that baseball legend Satchel Paige is credited with dispensing: Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.
She had a lead on time when she was 17 and labeled the future of women's soccer. She wants to keep it that way as she nears 30.
"That's what keeps me driven and excited to come to training every day because I have an incredible hunger to improve," O'Reilly said. "I'm proud of what I've accomplished, but I feel like there is a lot more in me and a lot more growth potential. I love soccer, I love coming out to train, I love feeling like I'm improving."
It can feel sometimes as if O'Reilly has been around forever. She is a link between Mia Hamm and Alex Morgan, a bridge between generations. She has more appearances for the United States than all but six women: Kristine Lilly, Christie Rampone, Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Abby Wambach. Coaches have come and gone -- Jill Ellis is now the fifth to send her onto the field for the national team -- but she keeps making run after run. For a good chunk of a fan base that skews young, she is as much a part of the proceedings as the national anthem.
Yet she isn't old, not unless LeBron James, who was born three days before her and graduated from high school the same year, is old too. O'Reilly is only now, finally, approaching 30, a birthday that will arrive five months before next summer's World Cup. It is an athletic agelessness afforded only to those who do not wait their turn. Those who do not have to.
In that respect, she may be the last of her kind. Consider that in today's landscape, it speaks volumes about Morgan Brian that the midfielder is even in the running to make the American roster for a World Cup that will begin a few months after her final season at the University of Virginia. She is something of a wunderkind at 21 years old, as was Alex Morgan in similar circumstances surrounding the 2011 World Cup. But by the time she was 21 and done playing for the University of North Carolina, O'Reilly already had 50 caps and dust accumulating on an Olympic gold medal earned in no small part by the overtime goal she scored against Germany in a semifinal. Only an injury had deprived her of a World Cup medal too.
Go back to that initial trip to Portugal with the national team that came two months after her 17th birthday. She was as much in awe of her surroundings as anyone her age would have been. If she heard someone like Foudy call for the ball on the field, she passed it to her, not thinking about whether it was the right pass. You deferred to legends, and she was surrounded by them. In a time before selfies and Instagram -- before phones were cameras, for that matter -- she took a picture before her first game of the jerseys lined up in the locker room and marveled that the one bearing her name was next to the No. 8 of Shannon MacMillan, one of the players she had long admired from afar.
But just because she couldn't believe she was there didn't mean she doubted she belonged.
"I think that at 17, it's both confidence and cockiness, but I think you have to have that to get better," said Whitehill, now her teammate in Boston. "I don't think cocky is technically a bad term -- I think some people do. You have to be confident in yourself and in your skills. The cockiness comes by taking risks and trusting in your ability to do that. She had that. ...
"She was old for her age. I think that is really what has propelled her career and made her a mainstay on the national team."
Nevertheless, remaining so required some reinvention. O'Reilly was one of the first phenoms in the post-1999 world of women's soccer, a forward who could carry the flag of great American goal scorers into a new era. Then Pia Sundhage took over the national team after the 2007 World Cup and told O'Reilly she saw her as an outside midfielder, her speed, work rate and fitness all traits that lent themselves to getting to the end line and serving crosses to Wambach and the young forwards emerging around her. A cross like the one she served in extra time against Canada in the 2012 Olympics. After more than 120 minutes, she sprinted to a ball another player might have lost out of bounds and set up Morgan's headed winner.
"I think she's one of the best crossing players in the world, as far as her service from the flank," Ellis said. "She's exceptional. We want to try to get her out there in those spots as much as possible, but she's the ultimate professional. It doesn't matter if you're in a training environment or in a match, she will always give you 100 percent."
As a young player, O'Reilly said, she defined herself by goals. If she didn't score, she didn't feel successful. And she had the raw physical tools to be very successful, the determination to outrun any defender, and the speed to make good on that will. But simply getting to a ball first wasn't enough in her new role. She needed the technical quality to make a cross count. As much pride as she takes in being a workhorse, a blunt instrument whose relentless running wears down opponents, she takes more in the precision work she mastered.
"What people don't realize is when you're forced to change positions, it's not only a skill set that you have to learn, but it's a mentality difference as well," Wambach said last fall. "You kind of have to reinvent yourself, and the way that she's done it, and the professionalism she's taken with her throughout the time that she's had to change that position, has made her, in my opinion, one of the best outside midfielders in the world. Not only because of her speed but her mentality that she will do anything to get wins, she will do anything to put me, especially, in position to score goals. She makes my job a lot easier. She defends, she gets forward, she's a leader."
That last part is tested at the bottom of the professional table at least as much as at the pinnacle of the international game.
The math can be painful in a nine-team league that affords little middle. If a team isn't near the top, it is automatically near the bottom. The very bottom, in the case of the Breakers. Boston's three wins and two draws are all it has to show for 17 NWSL games this season. The Breakers aren't hopeless. They've lost by more than a goal only twice since Memorial Day, watching points slip out of their grasp time after time, unable to turn off the spigot of goals against them. They have been shut out just twice in that same span. Along with co-captains Whitehill and Lianne Sanderson, O'Reilly tries to keep an orderly retreat this season that offers momentum for next year, preventing the team from crumbling into bad chemistry, failing effort and abject frustration.
"If there's a problem on the team, she tries her best to see both sides of it," said Breakers teammate Courtney Jones. "She tries to compromise, she tries to get everyone together, she tries to fire us up. She's in the locker room, jumping around and dancing to the music, trying to get people fired up for our game. And off the field, she's doing the same thing, she's trying to get us together as a team.
"Especially with this season, it's been really difficult. We've had a few conversations. It's hard for a leader to keep on going every single day, trying to get your team up and ready and fired up, especially when we haven't had the best season, but I think she's done an incredible job. She's never negative."
Bad times will pass just as surely as good times will fade. All that matters is what comes next.
These days O'Reilly's alarm goes off in plenty of time to grab breakfast, either at one of the coffee shops near where she lives in Harvard Square during the season or in the house she and her husband, Dave Werry, own in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She may still be younger than half a dozen outfield players on the national team, but there are miles on her body all the same. Athletic trainers used to be the people she went to see occasionally when she was hurt. Now they're the people she visits all the time in an effort to ward off injuries.
There is still a great deal of soccer ahead of her. But as she nears 30, it is also remarkable how much soccer is behind her. She is neither young nor old. She just is.
Enough New Jersey bluntness lingers in the Garden State native to make it clear when a topic is not worth pursuing, offering a quick, perfunctory answer and a smirk like the one that played on her face when asked if she thought she would be someone who chose her time to walk away or who had to be told to leave. All athletes, she contended, would like to be the former.
"But I'm not looking at that right now," O'Reilly continued. "I'm very focused on hopefully being part of the U.S. team and helping them qualify and making a run at the World Cup. I'm just trying to stay present and enjoy this journey."
She never was one for looking back.