The United States Women’s National Team is in Mexico today about to hurdle their first obstacle on their way to World Cup 2011 in Germany.
Before their sojourn to Cancun, TSG had a chance to catch up with superstar flanker Heather O’Reilly, whose trophy case is devoid of just one piece of hardware: an elusive World Cup gold medal.
So how does someone who has won a championship at all levels begin her preparation for a qualifying tournament?
By getting engaged, of course, back at their alma mater, in this case the University of North Carolina. Who knew?
TSG caught up with Heather by phone in Chapel Hill.
An endearing subject; enjoy the read.
TSG: Okay, let’s start with a simple question.
We spoke to Kristine Lilly the other day; you average about 15.87 caps per year, Kristine averages 15.17 caps per year. So…if your career spans the same 23 years that her’s did, you’ll break her most capped record.
Heather O’Reilly, how do you feel about that?
Heather O’Reilly: <Laughing> Is that true?
I don’t think that Lill’s record will ever be touched.
Also, U.S. Soccer used to play a ton more games. Now, with the WPS, we don’t get those game numbers in each year.
Yeah, but what Lill’s done won’t ever be topped and I don’t see myself playing as long as her.
TSG: We’re rooting for you anyway…
Heather: That would be an epic race.
TSG: You’re headed to Mexico in a week or so…
Heather: I don’t think anyone forgets ever what happened in 2007. You might have to stat check me on this, but I think only Kristine Lilly and Christine Rampone have a World Cup gold in their possession. It’s pretty fresh in everyone’s minds that the last two World Cups we haven’t won.
I think everybody thinks about that and we’re excited to start the journey. We’re fired up about getting it back from the Germans for sure.
TSG: When you go down there, and since you’re expected to win–and I don’t mean disrespect to any opponents–but do you work on things to improve for the World Cup next year or do you just focus on winning each game?
Heather: I don’t think it has to be black-and-white either way. Something Pia is fond of saying over and over again is, “Respect the game, respect your opponent.”
We’re going to take care of one game at a time and we’re going to take care of business.
But it does come easier when we’re focused on some of the stuff we focused on in practice.
TSG: In terms of your not-so-recent position change, is there a different mindset coming off the side as a midfielder? Are you still looked at as a key attacker to score or is it more about the assists now?
Heather: My whole life I was a forward. I love being a striker obviously and sneaking behind defenses and scoring goals.
That to me is exciting and the best part of soccer…HOWEVER…
When Pia came in in 2008, she liked me in the midfield.
She thought my all-around game qualities on the field and being a physical player worked better in the midfield.
I worked on it a lot and I’ve really embraced the position now.
It’s fun going down the flank, taking on the defenders and crossing the ball into someone like Abby Wambach who makes a lot of my poor crosses look good.
TSG: I’ve seen some good crosses from you too, Heather.
Okay, only seven of the 20 players have previous World Cup qualifying experience.
Haather: Wow only seven, that’s hard to believe.
I think there’s a good mix of youth and veterans.
The thing about it…it’s a seasoned team in terms of age.
Alex Morgan’s the youngest and she’s already a senior in college with three years of college soccer under her belt.
We’ve got a lot of experience. And everyone at respective club teams has been asked to step up into leadership roles and that will go a long way.
TSG: So Shannon Boxx, she took from the men’s game so to speak, the notion of a true box-to-box player. When she’s gone who steps into that role and, more importantly, what’s the next major trend in women’s soccer?
Heather: I think there are a lot of good holding midfielders on the teams. In terms of Shannon, yeah, she has a unique set of skills, but Yael Averbuch and Lesley Osborne do that same job in a different way.
I think Lesley Osborne might be the best in the air.
And Yeal has a greater range switching the attack than any female in the world.
Shannon has been so important to the team but we’ve also got a lot of good players coming up.
Next, in terms of strategy, Pia has emphasized flank play over and over again. Not just the midfielders getting out there or making a cross, but getting our outside backs forward in the attack.
She wants them to be the fittest players on the filed…and that hasn’t been the norm on our national teams in the past.
She’s looking for them to get up and down in the match and I think that’s the next evolution of the women’s game.
TSG: Everything that I’ve read or heard about Pia speaks to her being a phenomenal coach. Here’s a good segue. Two things are said over and over again regarding the Men’s National Team: one, a foreign coach doesn’t understand the American soccer player, only an American one can; and two, there isn’t the proper or correct youth development happening.
But then I look at the Women’s National Team and you guys are highly successful with Pia in charge and you don’t seem to lack for talent.
React to that statement.
Heather: I think that the Women’s and Men’s side development is very different.
For women, more is through our university system and playing four years.
I will say looking at our recent youth team tournaments we haven’t been up to par where we should be in the women’s game. Our development’s been lacking. Girls are limited now in terms of playing up age groups and are told to focus on one sport when they’re young.
I think that stunts their growth.
TSG: Sounds like a fair assessment from someone with a good vantage point. Continuing on with Pia in terms of a foreign coach…is that a positive or a negative having a foreign coach?
Heather: Pia is definitely a positive.
I thin she brings a different look and we certainly talk a lot more tactics under Pia than any coach we’ve had.
And also, Pia recognizes what’s made American’s women soccer what it is. There’s a reason why American women has been one of the best teams in the world for a long time.
A lot of it is a mentality, an attitude. A never-say-die attitude, win at all costs attitude.
That being said, we can layer in more sophistication.
I think it works well with Pia. It’s a mesh of our mentality and more of her sophistication.
TSG: Great answer, I might have to share that one with Sunil Gulati…Nevermind…Who’s the favorite next year in Germany?
Heather: Well, we’re a well respected team and I obviously like our chances.
That being said, playing Germany in Germany is going to be a challenge.
The Brazil team will be strong…we’ve hung out with them off the pitch…but once we see them on the field we’ll get fired up.
I would say Brazil, Germany and that we’re up there as well.
TSG: Let’s say it’s 0-0 in the final game, 10 minutes to go and the U.S. is going to rally for a sort of golden goal to the win the championship, how does that play unfold in your mind?
Heather: I don’t know. I think that we do score in a lot of different and exciting ways.
I think of Abby–our top goal scorer–and she definitely has a way of dominating the game–I can say that after playing against her in club ball.
Maybe she’ll hit it…or maybe Carli Lloyd will get a header.
Maybe I’ll fly down the flank, scoot inside, and bury it myself.
TSG: Glad you included yourself.
Heather: You have to, right?
TSG: A few lay-ups to finish up the interview. Who’s your roommate on the road? Do you have one?
Heather: We switch it up quite a bit…but Rachel Buehler is a good friend and we often are together.
TSG: Does she snore?
Heather: No that would not be something I would be able to stand.
Not too many girls snore. Abby’s certainly the heaviest breather though.
TSG: Say you were to take 10 penalty kicks against Tim Howard. How many of them do you bury?
Heather: Well Tim and I grew up in the same area central jersey. I’ve known Tim for years…he’s an incredible goalie. But I like my chances.
I would say at least 50% maybe 6.
TSG: You certainly have a good chance, but if Timmy’s on…
Heather: I can at least bury 50% on him.
TSG: Which teammate is most likely to trip in heels.
Heather: Let’s see…that’s a fun question…would have to peg myself.
TSG: Oh c’mon, both you and Kristine, way too diplomatic.
Heather: No, that’s a fairly accurate answer. I’m fairly klutzy and I don’t wear heels now.
TSG: If you had to give your #9 jersey to some other than Abby who would it be?
Heather: Other than Abby?!
TSG: You already used her in two of your answers so let’s diversify a little here, okay?
Heather: <Laughing> Tobin Heath, youngster from New Jersey, played at Carolina, and I would let her rob my “nine.”
TSG: Now, you were a candidate for “Sportsman of the year in 2007″…and you lost to Brett…Favre…that just seems, well, wrong. Care to explain how that happened?
Heather: It was.
TSG: That was the year you had that big goal in the World Cup qualifying.
Heather: We didn’t win the World Cup, so I’ll let Brett have it.
Maybe 2010 with be the year for me…he’s not going to win it this year.
TSG: What’s your favorite moment from playing with the Women’s National Team, whether it be elation, celebration, serious, wistful, whatever…
Heather: Winning Olympic gold medals are great and all, but more specifically, I scored a goal against New Zealand in the quarterfinals in the first 2 minutes of the game.
TSG: Fastest goal ever. C’mon.
Heather: Yeah, well you know…
I can’t even explain that goosebumps I had after hitting that shot and my teammates coming over and absolutely mobbing me.
I have some awesome pictures with my veins popping out, too.
TSG: Thanks so much for your time Heather.
Good luck in Mexico and best of luck in breaking Kristine’s record.
Heather: Thanks, I appreciate it.