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Former UNC star Heather O’Reilly on Women’s World Cup title, bond with Tar Heels

United States’ Heather O’Reilly, right, hugs Megan Rapinoe after the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
United States’ Heather O’Reilly, right, hugs Megan Rapinoe after the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. AP

Heather O’Reilly was one of six former North Carolina women’s soccer players (starting midfielder Tobin Heath, starting defender Meghan Klingenberg, reserve defenders Lori Chalupny and Whitney Engen, and reserve goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris were the others) who helped Team USA win the Women’s World Cup. O’Reilly, a reserve who has won three Olympic gold medals, recently talked with The N&O about the memorable run and her bond with the other former Tar Heels on the team.

Q: You won two NCAA titles at UNC and three gold medals. What has winning the World Cup meant?

A: As a soccer player, the World Cup definitely holds a special importance, and although (I’m) very proud to be able to represent the U.S. in those three gold-medal winning Olympic games, I think for a lot of us, including myself, not having won a World Cup was sort of this glaring omission from my resume. Personally, and obviously as a team, I think that we just feel so happy that we set out to do something big, and we accomplished our goal.

The aftermath has been absolutely incredible. It’s just always so cool and inspiring to see how much the game has grown and how much we were able to impact so many people. It was 25 million or so people watching that last game, so we’re proud of our impact and making a mark on women’s sports.

Q: How cool was it to go on the journey with five other former UNC women’s soccer players?

A: We absolutely loved our connection as Tar Heels. We take a lot of pride in representing UNC, I think there’s a special bond between us. We always make sure to take some awesome photos as Tar Heels and we have a great photo with the trophy on the field there in Vancouver. The fact that there were six of us on that roster of 23 players just speaks a lot about the program, and (coach) Anson (Dorrance). There’s definitely a special bond, and I think that mental edge that you get when you come to Carolina, which is really helpful for us in the U.S. team environment.

Q: What was it like to see Carli Lloyd’s three-goal performance in the championship, when you’re up 4-0 seemingly in the blink of an eye?

A: It was absolutely a crazy game, I don’t think that anybody expected a scoreline such as that. Obviously, I was a reserve player in that game, so my teammates and I from the bench were just absolutely going crazy in those first 20 minutes. But we knew that we had to remind each other and the team to stay calm and disciplined. Nothing was really done yet, and we had to stay really focused and ready for 90 minutes to be played.

It was pretty crazy, an absolutely crazy game. But it’s just cool to see hard work pay off and is very rewarding. And Carli has obviously worked very hard through the year, so it’s always great to see your teammates have a lot of success.

Q: You had some close matches early in the tournament. Were there any adjustments you made as a team between the group stage and the knockout rounds?

A: Obviously there were some tactical adjustments with player personnel that the coaches eventually made, which really helped us. Another ACC player, (Virginia’s) Morgan Brian, the young star – the insertion of her into games really sort of helped free up Carli Lloyd, who was able to get closer to goal. That was sort of the biggest tactical adjustment that the team made, but I think at the end of the day, it was just about playing the way that we know that we can play.

We knew that we weren’t playing our best soccer in those opening games, but we were finding ways to win, which I think there’s something to be said for. Although it wasn’t aesthetically the product that we wanted to put out there, we were able to grind out some games and score on some set pieces, which is an important part of soccer. It was really rewarding to not only win, but to win in a way that was really pleasing to soccer and non-soccer folks alike. Obviously everyone likes seeing goals, and for us to take care of two quality opponents – Germany and Japan in the final – the way that we did spoke a lot about (the fact) we’re not just winners, but that we’re playing good soccer and that our U.S. team has a lot of diversity and versatility. That’s really cool and important.

Q: What has been your favorite moment since winning the title?

A: Between the celebration after the match on the field that evening, then coming back to the U.S., LA had a welcoming for us, then we went to New York and went to a Taylor Swift concert – we did all of this crazy stuff, then went to the ESPYs a week later. There was a lot of celebrating and a lot of fun activities going on, but by far for me the best moment was the ticker-tape parade in New York City.

It was inspiring to see how much support we had. I grew up in New Jersey, so for us to have a ticker-tape parade was really special for me because I remember watching those when I was a little girl. I even said before the parade, “I really hope people will come.” I was nervous about the turnout. When we were up on those floats, the hundreds of thousands of people that were there going absolutely crazy for us, and with the most amazing signs and messages – it was just spectacular. I had chills and tears in my eyes because I was so moved by the whole thing, and it was definitely a moment I won’t forget and I know a lot of my teammates feel the same way.

Q: What comes next for you after all of the success you have experienced in your career?

A: I just know that I’m absolutely loving the game and am still eager to improve. Right now I’m back with my team in Kansas City and will hopefully help lead the team into the playoffs. It would be a dream to win for both club and country in the same summer, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now, just absolutely loving my soccer.