CARY — Former UNC women's soccer star Heather O'Reilly has always received a warm welcome at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park, whether it was for her first appearance and goal for the U.S. Women's National team as a 17-year-old or winning three ACC championships while with the Tar Heels.
A standing ovation awaited her as she made her way to the bench Wednesday in the 72nd minute.
With a first-half assist and second-half goal, the U.S. team's top midfielder had a hand in each of her team's goals in a nationally-televised 2-0 win against the Japan national team.
"I absolutely love this place," O'Reilly, who was named woman of the match said. "I'm a happy Tar Heel tonight. ... To get such good applause when I'm back here in Cary means so much."
As one of six former UNC players on the U.S. roster, O'Reilly was one of the obvious fan-favorites right from the starting lineups in a game that pitted the No. 1 team in the world against the No. 4 team, Japan.
"I try to bring my highest level to any field I to every field I step on, but I think that with such a supportive fan base here that always helps as well," she said.
The game's first 20 minutes saw three U.S. shots on goal either push just wide of the goal or get saved by starting Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori.
In the 28th minute, O'Reilly helped bring that supportive Triangle crowd of 5,323 to their feet when after getting to the right of the box, she played a ball to teammate Amy Rodriguez, who tapped in the game's first goal.
"Every player has their strengths and you try to play to them. For me, it's about taking players one-on-one, getting the end line and getting quality crosses in," O'Reilly said.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage praised O'Reilly after the game for her quickness in moving past the defense along the right side. At certain points in the first half, O'Reilly switched to the left side with Megan Rapinoe, to the chagrin of her coach.
"Coach said at halftime, 'why did you switch fields? ... stay over there,'" O'Reilly said.
After teammates whiffed on multiple second-half chances to score -- some, like a 62nd minute breakaway by reserve Alex Morgan that was botched with an open net, were tantalizingly close -- O'Reilly one-timed a shot from just outside the right corner of the box to give the U.S. its final score.
In the 69th minute, after Carli Lloyd gained possession near midfield, she played the ball wide and to the right for O'Reilly to create again.
O'Reilly took a step to her left near the outside of the box and fired in the 29th goal of her international career, second-most among this year's U.S. roster.
"When it opens up for me to cut inside and take a shot myself, of course, I have the freedom to do that," O'Reilly said. "I just read the defender and knew I had some space inside to get a shot myself."
Meanwhile, the smaller but quick Japanese team forced just three shots on goal, compared to nine for the U.S. team. The U.S. also had more than twice as many corner kicks, getting the edge 10-4.
"Sometimes [Japan's players] pass a little too much in the 6-yard box and the 18-yard box and they just need to pull the trigger," goalkeeper Hope Solo said.
It was the final exhibition for the team against Japan this summer before the World Cup begins in late July. The next match is against Mexico on June 5 in New Jersey.
"The positives that we can take from it is that we had a lot of chances, we put them on frame, our set pieces were very dangerous and the no goals against is fantastic," O'Reilly said. "The hardest thing in soccer is scoring, right? We missed a little bit of the finishing composure on our end, but that'll come. We have to believe that that will come as we continue to set up these great attacks."
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