It is not often that two legends, two giants of their sport, play together on the same team at the same time. It is even less common to have them step away from the game at the same time. But this isn’t the first time the United States women’s national team has captured lightning in a bottle with Heather O’Reilly and Hope Solo. Both women have dedicated over a decade to the senior national team, going above and beyond on and off the field, from winning a World Cup to tackling equal pay issues. Their impact on the game is immeasurable, but only due to its boundlessness, and fans of soccer of all ages, genders, and nationalities owe them many thanks.
Solo is known as absolutely frank and brutally honest, traits often cited as the cause of her eventual downfall. Her comments after the devastating quarter-final loss to Sweden angered many, prompting U.S. Soccer to distance itself, claiming Solo’s remarks did not “meet the standard of conduct” required of national team players. Her U.S. Soccer contract was terminated and she was suspended for six months, the future of her career lying in the hands of head coach Jill Ellis, should she decide to call her into camp again. Many assume that this is the end for the 35-year-old, no longer viewed as a winner but a PR liability, a liability who will be nearly 40 by the time the next World Cup/Olympic Cycle comes around.
Solo may not make the best role model – a fatal flaw for a female athlete in the US, where women must always be perfect for the little girls who look up to her – but what is worth admiring is her grit and her passion. She was the core of the United States back line for nearly 17 years, making numerous clutch saves to keep her team in tournaments (everyone remembers her penalty save against Brazil in 2011), repeatedly setting the standard for true greatness. Through a rough childhood, she clawed her way to the top of her field, setting records along the way that had never been reached by any player, male or female. She spoke her mind and was a very vocal proponent for equal pay and better conditions in the NWSL. She feared no one, on or off the field, which ended up being a blessing and a curse. She was powerful, she knew it, and her being cognizant of her influence and attempting to use it turned her from America’s hero to America’s enemy.
Shortly after the announcement of Solo’s suspension, Heather O’Reilly announced that she, too, would be stepping away from the international game, but on her own terms. She may have only been an alternate in the 2016 Rio Olympics squad, but her announcement came as a shock, seeing as she continuously broke records in fitness tests and, at 31, is still young enough that she could realistically last another cycle. In fact, after being cut from the Olympic Qualifying roster, she immediately took to the field to refine her touch and improve on her already impeccable fitness, preparing to carry her team if necessary.
It’s no wonder then that O’Reilly, who debuted on the team at seventeen, has been a familiar face in an ever-changing player pool, and is often considered the glue that holds teams together. She may not have brought star power of the same magnitude as Carli Lloyd, but she supported her team just the same. It’s hard to forget the goal that sent the United States into the gold-medal match at the London 2012 Olympics, but while everyone knows it was scored by Alex Morgan, considerably less know that it came off of the perfect serve from Heather O’Reilly.
Always known to be considerate to the coaching staff and the press, she was nowhere near as controversial as Solo, but the teammates were not unalike. From the time they were teenagers, both players dedicated their lives to being their best at their sport, putting aside families and personal lives to give it their all every time they stepped on the field.
O’Reilly, however, was able to celebrate her career in the best way possible. Captaining a squad of her best friends, some of whom she’s known since college, or her days playing club soccer for Players Development Academy in New Jersey, she dominated the field, logging assists and goals. A tribute from Mia Hamm before the match demonstrated the magnitude of her success, ensuring her status as one of the best to ever step on the field in a United States jersey was undeniable. She was subbed out late in the game but nobody came on in her place; Heather O’Reilly was truly the irreplaceable heart of the team, whether she was a starter, a sub, or an alternate. To end the game, Alex Morgan, who finished that iconic cross four years ago, scored a goal in extra time to bring the score to 9-0, nine goals for the incredible number nine.
Now might be the perfect time to say goodbye, but the game will not be the same without her. Her humor and good nature softened even the most painful losses, and her dedication set the bar high for incoming national team players. Without her, fans of the USWNT would be without many of the memories that they hold dear to their hearts (like the YouTube videos she starred in before many people knew what YouTube was). Although painful to say, O’Reilly’s continued dedication means she is more than deserving than a rest from international play. She will still be putting her talent to good use for NWSL side FC Kansas City, though, and knowing Heather, there will be no days off until she steps away from the game for good.
Whether Solo will get recognition for her years of service to the team is yet to be determined, but both she and O’Reilly’s impact will be felt for years to come. The hashtag that Solo started (and O’Reilly supported), #EqualPlayEqualPay, has gained traction throughout the soccer community, and it is common to find it plastered on everything from t-shirts to posters. Their refusal to submissively accept inequality has paved the way for future generations to address concerns with the treatment of individual players or the whole team without fear of overstepping.
As usual, the end of the World Cup/Olympic cycle brought marriages, babies, and retirements, but few expected for it to happen like this: Two of the best to ever play soccer leaving at the same time, but doing so in opposite fashion. But both changed the game through both their talent on the field and their powerful words off it. Players from East Brunswick, New Jersey to Richland, Washington now have a better chance to succeed and thrive in the world of soccer thanks to the work Hope Solo and Heather O’Reilly have done to improve the game, and for that, we are forever indebted.