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Soccer legend O’Reilly will exit on her own terms

Meet Community Connector Heather O’Reilly

Heather O'Reilly, Olympic and World Cup champion and one of the most capped players in the history of American soccer, builds strong connections within family, team, community and the sport.
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Heather O'Reilly, Olympic and World Cup champion and one of the most capped players in the history of American soccer, builds strong connections within family, team, community and the sport.

Most soccer players could only dream of having the career of Heather O’Reilly and the achievements that accompany it. Now that career is approaching its end.

More than 17 years after debuting for the U.S. National Team as a teenager, the North Carolina Courage midfielder announced Friday that the 2019 season will be her last professionally.

“It’s been a long and beautiful ride,” O’Reilly wrote in an Instagram post announcing her retirement.

Along that ride there’s been an array of accolades, including: three Olympic gold medals; one World Cup title; two NCAA national championships at UNC; and two NWSL titles, the second of which came with the Courage last season.

At 34, O’Reilly is going out on her own terms. Having achieved a career goal of playing professionally in England with Arsenal, O’Reilly jumped at the chance to join the Courage last June and play in the Triangle, an area she’s remained involved with since her college days in Chapel Hill.

In half a season with the team, O’Reilly helped the Courage complete a treble, winning the Women’s International Champions Cup (she scored the game-winner in the championship match against Olympique Lyonnais), the NWSL Shield and the NWSL Championship. But O’Reilly wanted the opportunity to have a full season with the group before hanging up the cleats, believing that she still has “a lot to bring to the team.”

“It just seems like it’s the right season,” O’Reilly said in an interview Saturday following the Courage’s season-opening 1-1 tie against the Chicago Red Stars.

It will definitely be a unique final year. While O’Reilly believes her tank as a player “is not empty yet,” she’s already looking ahead to her post-retirement career opportunities. This summer, O’Reilly will spend five weeks in France at the Women’s World Cup as a studio analyst for Fox Sports.

“Obviously you can’t play this beautiful game forever, but there are so many different ways you can continue to be a part of it,” she said. “Obviously being on camera and doing studio analysis is an opportunity that came up with Fox. I’m thrilled.”

O’Reilly, a co-owner of the Carolina Coffee Shop on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, is also interested in coaching and management.

“Who knows where life will take me, but I know it will be in this beautiful game,” she said.

Courage teammate and fellow UNC product Crystal Dunn called O’Reilly, a longtime training partner of hers in Chapel Hill, a “true legend.”

“To me, she’s pure class,” Dunn said. “Her leaving the game is going to be really sad, but she has so many great things ahead of her. She’s going to crush whatever she steps foot in, and I’m excited to see her in that next phase of life.”

For now, O’Reilly is embracing her role on the Courage and looking forward to playing one last season at WakeMed Soccer Park, a place of great meaning to her. It’s where she scored her first goal with the USWNT in 2002 and where she won multiple ACC and NCAA championships with the Tar Heels. Now it’s where her journey will end.

“To be able to finish it here … it’s storybook,” O’Reilly said. “I’m thrilled.”

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