These 4 women, our Tar Heels of the Month, lifted a World Cup trophy and local soccer

They start trickling out onto the dewy, freshly cut field just before 9:30 a.m. Some are jogging and stretching, others are fixing their ponytails and giggling. The women in their 20s and 30s wear fitted navy blue tank tops and shorts that make their toned muscles visible from the nearby parking lot.

Practice is about to start for the North Carolina Courage, and WakeMed Soccer Park is quiet except for the high-pitched thump of soccer balls, the voices of players calling for a pass and directions from coaches running drills. It’s quite a different pitch than the one a few of these players stepped onto earlier this month at the 2019 FIFA World Cup, where they were crowned the champions.

Courage players Samantha Mewis, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Abby Dahlkemper returned from competing for the United States at the world’s biggest soccer stage in French stadiums that were bumping with tens of thousands of face-painted fans from across the world.

Each of the women hails from a different state and took a different path to become a professional soccer player. But they’re connected by two crests on their chests: the NC Courage and the U.S. Women’s National Team.

For their accomplishments in elevating soccer in the Triangle, and around the world, Mewis, Dunn, Dahlkemper and McDonald are The News & Observer’s July Tar Heels of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region. The four of them will be considered later this year for Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December.

Their post World Cup celebration raged for 10 days after the players hoisted the trophy in Lyon, France. They popped champagne, did confetti angels on the field, showered each other with beer in the locker room, paraded through the streets of New York City on floats, made multiple national TV appearances and walked the red carpet at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, where they won “best team.”

But today, they’re back to the grind in Cary. They’ve rejoined the Courage, their National Women’s Soccer League team, mid-season and are at work chasing another league championship and inspiring the next generation.

“The World Cup is not the end of their careers, it’s the start of their careers,” NC Courage Head Coach Paul Riley said at a news conference in Cary earlier this month.

Here is a look at each of the four:

Sam Mewis: Becoming a hero for today’s kids

At 7 years old, Mewis watched in awe as the greatest women’s soccer players in the world clinched the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup in a penalty kick shootout. She and her older sister Kristie looked at each other and said, “That’s what we’re going to do.”

This month, Sam Mewis hoisted her own World Cup trophy, tears spilling down her cheeks as she and her teammates were showered with confetti. She had just become the Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain or Kristine Lilly for some little girl at home watching this 2019 team take the title.

“It’s so cool to know that I’m filling a role that I once looked up to,” Mewis said. “I want to make sure that I’m being a good role model.”

Her journey to play at the highest level was calculated. While playing for a top youth club team in Massachusetts, she was constantly challenged by coaches and teammates. She trained daily with the club team, with her high school teammates, with her sister and on her own.

Mewis led her teams to league, state and regional championships, earning national accolades along the way. She played on youth national teams alongside her sister and gained experience at a U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups. She was considered the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2011 and took her talents to the University of California, Los Angeles. She was a standout for four seasons with the Bruins, helping them win a national championship and being named the winner of the 2015 Honda Award and ESPN National Player of the Year.

“I’m lucky to have been surrounded by so many talented players and people who wanted me to succeed that were able to push me,” Mewis said. “Not overlooking any of the steps that it took me to get here has been really helpful.”

Her preparation and talent shined bright in the first game of the tournament, her World Cup debut, when she scored two goals against Thailand.

“It was just the culmination of so much emotion and almost kind of relief,” Mewis said. “In that moment I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m here. I can play at this level and I can impact it.’”

She earned a starting spot and was a 6-foot-tall force in the midfield, playing in all but one game in the tournament. She played all 90 minutes of the final match.

“It’s such a competitive group that anytime you get playing time it’s such a big deal,” Mewis said. “I was honored to get the opportunities that I did on such a talented roster.”

She has enjoyed celebrating the “once in a lifetime” World Cup win and said it has been even better getting to share it with her parents and husband.

But now, she’s happy to be back in North Carolina and sleeping in her own bed.

“This is where our routine is and where our team is,” Mewis said. “It was a whirlwind and a ton of fun, but I’m glad that we’re home.”

North Carolina summers are hot compared to Massachusetts, but the Southern hospitality makes it worth it, she said. Mewis finds friendliness and support when she takes time to talk to fans after games or to run out on the field with young girls that remind her of herself.

“I’m just excited that I have this opportunity to represent myself and my family,” she said. “And hopefully inspire some young group of girls along the way.”

Tar Heel of the Month: Sam Mewis

Age: 26

Hometown: Weymouth, Mass.

Education: University of California, Los Angeles

Accomplishments: 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion with the U.S. Women’s National Team; 2018 NWSL Champion, NWSL Shield Award and winner of 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup with the NC Courage.

Jessica McDonald: The ultimate soccer mom

For McDonald, the best part of the World Cup experience wasn’t the minutes on the field or the elaborate celebrations that followed the win, it was being able to share it with her 7-year-old son, Jeremiah.

“The most important thing to me is being able to bring him along, which is something you don’t see very often in professional sports,” McDonald said. “And being the only mom out there and being able to share it not only with my teammates, but with the most important human being in my life, I mean it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Jeremiah was in France to watch the women play and to hold up the trophy after the final game. He stood on the floats in the ticker-tape parade in New York City and watched the team get the key to the city from the mayor. He then hopped on the charter plane straight to the ESPYs, got dressed up as his mom’s date and met some of the greatest athletes in the world.

And he’s at an age where he’ll actually remember it, which McDonald said she is grateful for.

“It’s an honor to represent the crest on my chest but also just to see the happiness on his face,” she said.

McDonald is the only mom on the national team roster and one of only a handful of moms in the NWSL. Jeremiah is an easygoing kid, she said, which makes bringing him along a bit easier. But trying to manage the hectic schedule of being a parent and a successful professional athlete is mentally and physically draining.

“One of the most important things as a parent is obviously getting your kid on a routine,” McDonald said. “Sometimes our schedule does change, but as long as I continue to have my kid as close to his routine as possible, that helps me in my job as well.”

She said there are some exhausting days when her teammates ask how she goes home to care for her child when they go home and take a four-hour nap, then watch Netflix and eat cereal for dinner. She doesn’t have those options to unwind. “Me taking a four-hour nap is absolutely impossible because I have another human being to take care of.”

That’s when she relies on her faith and her support system to get her through.

“I just know one day this is going to help him succeed,” McDonald said. “And that’s probably the most important thing for me is just to raise a good human being and inspire him to succeed in whatever it is that he’s going to do.”

When she was a child, McDonald knew that she wanted to be a professional athlete, but soccer wasn’t her main sport. She thought she’d be playing basketball in the WNBA or as a quarterback in the NFL.

“We ... didn’t have a professional league for me growing up,” McDonald said. “It didn’t hit me until later on in life that there was a good chance I’d be able to play professional soccer.”

She was playing basketball at a junior college in Arizona, when the former women’s professional soccer league started up. She’d played soccer on youth national teams and competed at the Pan American Games, so she thought maybe she had a chance to switch. She transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill, the greatest collegiate soccer program of all time, won two national championships and then worked her way into the professional league.

Over 10 years, McDonald played for nine different professional soccer teams, according to U.S. Soccer. In 2010, she was drafted as the 15th overall pick to the Chicago Red Stars in the WPS, the former professional league in the U.S. When that league folded, she played in Germany and Australia and then returned to the U.S. to play in the NWSL. After playing everywhere from Seattle to Portland to Houston to New York, she returned to North Carolina when the NC Courage formed in 2017.

She immediately started making her mark as a forward with a knack for finding the back of the net. She was the first NWSL player to reach 33 regular-season goals and was named MVP of the 2018 NWSL Championship after scoring two goals in the final game.

Now that she’s back in season with the Courage, McDonald sees herself in a powerful position to carry that strength from the World Cup victory to the NWSL. And the country is relying on them to be successful.

“We have to continue to bring the fire to transition that momentum from what just happened in our club teams, and that’s what’s going to make this league so phenomenal.”

Tar Heel of the Month: Jessica McDonald

Age: 31

Hometown: Phoenix, Ariz.

Education: UNC-Chapel Hill

Accomplishments: 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion with the U.S. Women’s National Team; 2018 NWSL Champion, NWSL Shield Award and winner of 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup with the NC Courage.

Abby Dahlkemper: Sacrificing to live out her dream

Dahlkemper still remembers the day she walked out on the field with the professional women’s soccer players of the FC Gold Pride in Santa Clara, Calif. She was with her youth club teammates and knew it wouldn’t be the last time she’d be on a field alongside the pros. She was going to be one of them one day.

“I remember being so excited to go to those games,” said Dahlkemper, who is now signing her own jersey for young fans who come to see her play.

“It’s such a full circle that I’m hopefully able to be a pioneer,” Dahlkemper said. “Little girls are seeing the NWSL and little boys are seeing the NWSL, and that’s so important to have something to look forward to or to strive to be.”

It’s been a grind getting to this point in her career, as a starter who played in all seven matches at the World Cup and a top defender in the NWSL playing for the NC Courage.

“There is a point I think where you really have to dedicate and sacrifice a lot in our lives, our personal lives, to try and make our goals reality,” Dahlkemper said. “It helps having a group of strong women and kind of doing the same thing to support each other.”

Dahlkemper played for a competitive club team and high school team, winning state titles, national All-American accolades and the 2010 Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year in California. She came up through the ranks of the U.S. Youth National Teams, representing the U.S. since 2010, when she captained the U-17 team.

She had an impressive college career at UCLA, where she won a national championship and helped the team set a school record for least goals scored against it. Dahlkemper was the 2014 Honda Sports Award winner as the best female collegiate athlete in soccer.

She continued playing with the U-23 national team in college and after her senior season. She got called up to the senior roster and made her first appearance for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2016.

But her start in the NWSL wasn’t so smooth. In 2015, she was drafted to the Western New York Flash as the 3rd overall pick, but the team struggled to find success and had a losing season.

“It wasn’t the most positive environment,” Dahlkemper said. “People are going to face adversity throughout their career, whether it’s an injury or a losing team.”

FranceUSWWCupSoccer (1).JPG
United States’ Abby Dahlkemper, left, and Megan Rapinoe share a laugh during a training session of the US Women’s Soccer team at a training ground in Lyon, France, Monday, July 1, 2019. The US will face England in a Women’s World Cup semifinal match Tuesday in Lyon. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani) Laurent Cipriani AP

She’s proud of how she and her teammates worked through that, and she has thrived under the leadership of a new coach in Paul Riley and a new home in North Carolina. Ultimately, she’s thankful for the opportunity to play the game she loves.

“Being a professional athlete is a very interesting lifestyle,” Dahlkemper said. “I’ve learned that it’s a 24-7 job in a way that everything that you do off the field affects yourself on the field.”

Eating healthy food and getting proper rest and recovery are all part of knowing what your body needs to perform optimally. For Dahlkemper, that means getting about 10 hours of sleep and waking up just in time to grab a quick breakfast such as oatmeal and fruit before morning practice.

“You get used to living out of a bag, you get used to traveling, playing on different teams and adjusting,” said Dahlkemper. “It doesn’t get easy, but I think you get used to it.”

She knows she won’t be able to play soccer forever, so she said she’s “just trying to enjoy the moment.”

“It’s a privilege getting to travel all these places, see these amazing things and play in the most competitive league in the world and represent my country at the world stage,” Dahlkemper said.

Tar Heel of the Month: Abby Dahlkemper

Age: 26

Hometown: Menlo Park, Calif.

Education: University of California, Los Angeles

Accomplishments: 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion with the U.S. Women’s National Team; 2018 NWSL Champion, NWSL Shield Award and winner of 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup with the NC Courage.

Crystal Dunn: Always striving to play with the elite

It was her World Cup debut, but France wasn’t the first time Dunn had been crowned a champion.

She won multiple New York state championships in high school and an NCAA national championship at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was named the country’s best collegiate player, winning the MAC Hermann Trophy. Dunn also helped the U.S. Youth National Team win the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan in 2012.

As a professional, Dunn was named the NWSL MVP, the youngest player to win that award, and also played a vital role in helping the NC Courage sweep the NWSL Shield, NWSL Championship and Women’s International Champions Cup trophies in the 2018 season.

But the gold trophy Dunn danced with in July was by far the biggest, especially after she didn’t make the cut for the 2015 roster.

“I always knew the World Cup wasn’t going to be easy … [and I] found out that it wasn’t easy,” Dunn said. “Just me putting my head down, digging deep and trying to be at my best every game was challenging, but it was incredible ... in the end to be lifting that trophy.”

U.S. Soccer describes Dunn as “versatile and ruthless” because she excels in nearly every position on the field. She played as a forward, midfielder and defender when she was a Tar Heel and as a forward and midfielder on the NC Courage. She solidified her spot on the women’s national team as an outside back, where she played for six of the U.S. games in France.

Her first experience as part of this 23-woman roster was strenuous, she said. She was playing as a left back, which she said isn’t her best position. But she was confident knowing she could contribute, regardless of where she was on the field.

“I went into every game thinking, ‘I’m going to impact the game. I know I’m going to do something that is going to potentially help the team score a goal or assist a goal.’”

NC Courage player Crystal Dunn is introduced as the NC Courage women’s soccer team visits the the North Carolina Executive Mansion on July 19, 2019 in Raleigh, NC. Dunn was also part of the historic 2019 USA Women’s National team that won the World Cup. Bryan Cereijo bcereijo@newsobserver.com

Dunn has been playing on the best teams, for the best coaches and with the best players since she was young. It started with her youth club team the Albertson Fury, where she was also coached by Paul Riley, continued as she played for the U.S. Youth National Teams, and went through her college years as a Tar Heel with the legendary Anson Dorrance.

But players don’t have to take one correct route to play at the professional level, Dunn said.

“That’s what’s incredible when you do make it as a pro, everything that’s happened before doesn’t matter,” she said. “Some people have never made a youth roster ever and are still making it in the pros and still dominating the game.”

Dunn said the NWSL is so important. “It’s where everyone develops, where everyone spends most of their time getting better. We have to protect it and continue making it better in any way we can.”

North Carolina is also a place that feels like home for Dunn after her four years at UNC.

“Going to school down the road, I always felt like when I came to this team I was coming home in a big way,” Dunn said. “It’s a great environment and a great place to be.”

And it’s an important place to advance the game and garner fan support.

“This past World Cup was really powerful,” Dunn said. Now, she added, World Cup players need to return to their NWSL teams and “propel ourselves in the new direction.”

“It’s just as powerful for people be able to go into their backyard and be able to see amazing soccer.”

Tar Heel of the Month: Crystal Dunn

Age: 27

Hometown: Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Education: UNC-Chapel Hill

Accomplishments: 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion with the U.S. Women’s National Team; 2018 NWSL Champion, NWSL Shield Award and winner of 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup with the NC Courage.

What’s next for these stars?

Mewis, McDonald and Dahlkemper were back on the field for the Courage against the Chicago Red Stars on July 21. It was a tough loss for the team, but the returning national team players on both teams helped draw a sellout crowd for the game, which aired on ESPN.

The Courage players are jetting off to another NWSL match to take on the Utah Royals FC on July 27 in Salt Lake City.

Then they’ll be pulled away again to reunite with the U.S. Women’s National Team for its Victory Tour, which kicks off on Aug. 3 against Ireland at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.

The NWSL season will continue in full swing and fans can watch the Courage and these stars every week for the next four months. The next game for the Courage, currently in second place in the league, is on Aug. 2 when they host the Washington Spirit at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

Mewis, McDonald, Dahlkemper and Dunn will be back in action with the team throughout the fall season as they defend their NWSL Championship title. And they each might be back on the international stage again fighting for gold with the U.S. Women at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

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