Heather O'Reilly: Ironwoman
In the summer of 2010, one of the most long-standing records in U.S. Women’s National Team history was quietly eclipsed.
The player who broke the record didn’t even know it at the time. U.S. Soccer didn’t even realize it until some quick math was tabulated, and it was discovered that Heather O’Reilly had in fact surpassed the record for most consecutive games played for the U.S. Women.
U.S. legend Carla Overbeck, who captained the USA to the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup title, had held the previous record for more than 15 years, having played 63 consecutive games during her prime from 1993 through 1996.
On July 17, 2010 (the 11-year anniversary of the USA’s historic 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup victory), O’Reilly started and played 90 minutes in the USA’s 3-0 victory against Sweden at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. It was her 64th consecutive match for the USA.
She would finish out the year playing in nine more games, including the World Cup Qualifying tournament and playoffs, and then started the USA’s opening match of 2011 on Jan. 21 against Sweden at the Four Nations Tournament in China.
U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage then sat O’Reilly out for the second match of that tournament against Canada on Jan. 23, giving a few younger players some minutes, thereby ending a streak of 74 consecutive games that lasted almost four and half years (it began on Aug. 12, 2007, with a start in the USA’s 6-1 win against New Zealand in Chicago).
There are many things that could get in the way of playing 74 consecutive games for the U.S. WNT. A player has to navigate a talented pool of players working hard for minutes, avoid injuries and most of all, if not the most difficult of all, consistently put forth a high level of performance in games as well as in training, where game minutes are earned.
“One of the ways I’ve grown as a player is to not allow the highs to get too high or the lows to get too low,” said the 27-year-old O’Reilly. “You have to keep a good perspective on your career and focus on the things that you do well and try to bring those every single day. That has made me a consistent player and I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of games. I’ve also been fortunate enough to stay healthy and fit and keep good habits on the training and game pitch, which in the end helps the team.”
Even more impressively, O’Reilly started 67 of those 74 matches, and the streak is an indication of the confidence the coaching staff has showed in her.
“She gives 100 percent every time she steps on the field, whether it’s in a passing pattern, a crossing drill or an 11-vs.-11 game,” said U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage. “She makes everything game-like. It’s one of her strengths and it’s good for the team. It’s contagious.”
O’Reilly grew up watching the pioneers of that 1999 team and still finds it surprising to see her name along with the likes of Overbeck.
“Obviously I grew up admiring her and her teammates,” said O’Reilly. “It’s almost a surreal feeling to be mentioned with her.”
Like Overbeck, O’Reilly is known for her ultra-competitive nature, a trait she shares with her teammates on the USA. The sense of competition at the highest levels has pushed her to do the things needed for a professional to see her name on the start sheet on a consistent basis.
“I always try to be at my fittest,” said O’Reilly, who regularly finishes among the leaders in the USA’s endurance, speed and agility tests. “I think my fitness level and my athleticism and speed are some of my good attributes so I try to always make sure that those are things coaches can see in me and know that they can always get that out of me.”
O’Reilly is one of 16 U.S. players to have earned more than 150 caps, but she’s not looking at long-term goals or milestones. It’s that habit of focusing on the day at hand that has allowed her to put so many days together for the National Team.
“I try not to compare myself to all the great players we have on this team,” said O’Reilly. “I am more concerned with being the best me I can be every day. If I take that attitude to the training pitch, I come ready and focused and I never take anything for granted. It improves my focus and gets me ready to compete every day.”
If Overbeck held the record for 15 years, how long will it sit with O’Reilly? Odds are that the player who will play 75 consecutive games is right now growing up watching O’Reilly and her teammates.