When Shelbourne FC team captain Pearl Slattery picked up her two teammates, Shauna Fox and Izzy Glennon, for the drive to training in North Dublin, she was downright giggly. “I have the craziest news,” she said as she drove. “But I can’t tell you, I swore I wouldn’t tell.” A second later: “We have a new player.”
Fox and Glennon started guessing Irish names. Slattery said no — try American. So they rattled off U.S. college players, and Slattery said no, think bigger. “So we start saying the most outrageous names we can think of,” Glennon says. “And Heather was one of those outrageous names.”
She was talking about Heather O’Reilly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion and scorer of 47 goals for the U.S. national team. When they finally guessed correctly, Slattery giggled and confirmed — “Isn’t that mad? It’s absolutely mad. ” Once the whole car knew that O’Reilly was coming to play with Ireland’s Shelbourne FC, they were all giggly together. “We didn’t believe it at first,” says Glennon. “We told Pearl she must’ve misheard.” They were shocked, excited — and, well, confused. Why was Heather O’Reilly coming to play with them?
O’Reilly is 37 years old. She is happily married and the mom of two small boys. She’s an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a perennial powerhouse, and she’s a pundit on various soccer broadcasts. She ran the Boston Marathon in March. She even had a stint on “American Ninja Warrior”, which is pretty emblematic of O’Reilly in general: She’s the kind of person who tends to say yes. (On the “American Ninja Warrior” broadcast, they patched in fellow U.S. legends Julie Foudy and Abby Wambach to cheer for her during her run. Afterward, when they asked Wambach if maybe she’d also come on the show, Wambach scoffed — like, only Heather is game enough for that.)
It has been a lively, varied post-playing life. “I have a great existence,” O’Reilly says. But she’ll also tell you directly how much she misses playing.
“Even though it’s my best friends playing in the NWSL, and on the national team, it’s challenging for me to watch,” she reflects. “I don’t know, maybe I’m still grieving this former life and former identity. I’m envious of those who retire and don’t crave it — I do and I think a lot of other people do as well.”
“Besides my husband and my children,” she says, “soccer is the love of my life.”
O’Reilly retired from the U.S. national team in 2016 and club soccer three years later, but you don’t just forget about the love of your life. O’Reilly plays every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at lunch with the UNC men’s coaches, five-on-five, trash-can goals.
“I get my fill playing small-sided,” she says. “The workout is there, the goals are there, the high-fives are there — it’s almost enough. It’s never quite the real thing. But it’s better than nothing.”
Then, in June, O’Reilly played in a charity match for Soccer Aid with the likes of Usain Bolt, Andriy Shevchenko, Carli Lloyd and Patrice Evra. She was coached by the legendary Arsene Wenger, former Arsenal manager. After a training session, he said to her — his French accent making each word sound all the more profound — “Heather you are good. You should still play.”
Wenger’s praise sent O’Reilly down a tunnel of reflection: Well, it was true that she’s never played in the Champions League, and it was true that has always bothered her — it was the one dream that got away.
Soon this idea of playing again took hold. O’Reilly was in decent shape — she regularly jumped into fitness sessions with her UNC team. (There’s a story about a practice in the summer heat of Chapel Hill, when the team peeled off their T-shirts for the final few sprints. O’Reilly, six months pregnant, also whipped off her shirt, big belly exposed to the world, and kept on sprinting. “It was quite a sight,” says O’Reilly.) Post babies, O’Reilly often threw on her boots and went out to the field for “old-school soccer fitness,” even though she had nothing to train for.
“It’s just what I know,” O’Reilly says. She then clarifies: “I’m not like a crazy maniac or anything.” But yes, sometimes, she does still like to get on the line.
She did the math in her head: she had three weeks until the Champions League began.
Then she started presenting the idea to Dave, her husband: She would find a team that will allow her to play in the Champions League — she would once again have a dream to chase. His reaction? “I think it was a little bit of an eye roll,” O’Reilly says. “Any spouse of an elite athlete knows what comes with the territory — we are extremists. You have some obsessions and that’s part of what makes you great.”
At first, the plan was to play for FC Zurich and intern for Wenger, who is now FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, but that proved impossible: she wouldn’t have been able to get a Swiss visa in time. O’Reilly was disappointed — “Dave could see how bummed I was,” O’Reilly says. “I’d really gotten my hopes up.” Then she found Shelbourne FC — having won the Irish league, they’d qualified for the Champions League. And, well, she’s an O’Reilly.
Her agent reached out to Shelbourne. They responded immediately: YES.
At first, the thinking was that she’d go pursue this on her own, to be fully focused — she’s got 20 or so built-in babysitters on the UNC team. But, she realized, she didn’t actually want to leave her family behind. So Dave, husband to elite athlete, took a big inhale and said, “Alright, let’s go live on the shores of North Dublin.”
It’s important to note that the entire Irish league is amateur. No one gets paid. O’Reilly didn’t care. She wasn’t going there for the paycheck. She was going for the dream, for the adventure, to live a bit of her old life and to experience a new one.
Women’s football is spreading like wildfire around the world: At the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco, a continent record-setting 50,000 filled the stadium for the semifinal. In England, Euro 2022 in England saw record-breaking crowds: 87,192 spectators witnessed the final in Wembley. By going to Ireland, O’Reilly could take part in this global rise, bringing momentum to the women’s game in a part of the world where it still remains in the shadows.
The day O’Reilly and her family arrived in Ireland, they headed straight to Shelbourne’s Tolka Park, the storied football grounds dating back to 1924. O’Reilly would do a photo shoot and talk to the local news. The Shelbourne manager sent out a group text: “Just picked up Heather at the airport — any chance someone coming can bring her a hair dryer?” Alex Kavanagh, a midfielder on the team, texted back — she had one. The others were eager to know: Can we come too?! Can we all personally deliver this hair dryer?
Glennon, a 22-year-old who just graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in neuroscience, is one of two Americans on the team. She was 10 or 11 — peak fangirl age — during the height of O’Reilly’s success.
“We see Heather walk into the dressing room — we’re shaking — and we’re practicing how to say hello, literally practicing our hellos the entire walk up the stairs,” she recalls. “Telling ourselves, Be cool, be cool, be cool. Thinking, This can’t be real.“
O’Reilly smiled and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Heather.”
“It took everything in me not to be like, I know,” says Glennon. “A little later, Heather says, ‘I went to UNC,’ and again, I’m thinking, I know.”
They all milled about the field, O’Reilly smiling for the cameras. O’Reilly’s 2-year-old son, Will, toddled over to find her. As the reporter asked her questions, he stood beside his mom, his small hand on her leg. She wrote on Twitter: “Thankful for this opportunity to show my boys what happens when you are brave.”
In the mornings, while Dave took the kids in the double-stroller to get coffee and groceries in the beach town of Portmarnock, Heather O’Reilly met the strength and conditioning coach at the field. “It would not be a good look to be the 37-year-old who comes into Champions League with a bum hamstring,” O’Reilly says.
With the help of the trainer, and a couple of phone calls to Dawn Scott, the former U.S. women’s national team strength and conditioning coach, they worked on getting O’Reilly ready for their first match against the Slovenian side Pomurje on Aug. 18. On Instagram, O’Reilly shared a couple reels, set to Irish flute music and Dropkick Murphys, of sprints around cones, with the hashtag #stillchasingdreams.
The actual team practices were at night, because the women work day jobs: at a school nursery, a gym, a bank. A few are in their 30s and deep into non-football careers. The others are young, in their late teens and early 20s, working side-hustle jobs as they attempt to keep the game alive.
These stories are everywhere in women’s football: Elite athletes figure out how to make enough to live while continuing to play. In the final episode of “Hustle Rule,” a dozen players across generations shared similar stories: from Betina Soriana, an Argentine who works an eight-hour shift as a police officer and then heads to the field, to Izler Browne, who spent years playing on the Trinidadian national team while working in an oil refinery.
Shelbourne’s Kate Dowd, 18 years old, makes sandwiches at a corner shop that supplies sandwiches to other corner shops: They make 600 sandwiches and fruit salads a day. “I get up at 5 each morning, travel half an hour into Dublin, start at 6 a.m., stop at 5 p.m., 11 hours, making sandwiches,” Dowd, a midfielder, says. “It’s not bad — you go in, you get your work done — I come home, sometimes can catch a quick nap, and then I head to the field.”
Dowd, one of four siblings, has played since she could walk. “As a kid, you couldn’t get me out of my soccer jersey — I had Messi on my back 24/7,” she says. “You grow up watching your Ronaldos, your Messis in Champions League — you dream of it as a kid, being a part of something like that, but you never think it’s something that can actually happen to you.”
Over the next two weeks, Shelbourne played in two league games and a cup game — O’Reilly got an assist in the cup semifinal — and then they took off to Slovenia to play in the fabled European competition.
On Aug. 16, the team was on a three-hour bus ride from Austria. Like Dowd, O’Reilly was feeling pretty dang excited — she was sitting there in the bus with her teammates, ruminating on all the clutch-your-heart games and spectacular performances of the Champions League greats, like Lionel Messi, like Cristiano Ronaldo.
As she stared out the window, she took note of some amusing similarities: She’s 37; Ronaldo’s 37. His jersey number is 7; her jersey number is 7. He played right winger for years; she played right winger for years. And then she came upon a kind of preposterous fact: This year Ronaldo isn’t going to the Champions League while, she, Heather O’Reilly, is. Grinning to herself, she threw out a tongue-and-cheek joke on Twitter.
Heading to go play Champions League at age 37 and Ronaldo isn’t 🤣 HAO-7 pic.twitter.com/t7a8ph9or4
— Heather O’Reilly (@HeatherOReilly) August 16, 2022
In no way was she trying to say she is as good as he is. She considers him one of the top three players of all time. It was just a neener-neener-style joke. On her phone, she saw it start to pick up steam. Then the comments took a turn: The Cristiano fanboys arrived on her Twitter and Instagram en masse to defend their god by putting her down: Ronaldo’s gardener makes more than you, Ronaldo’s maid makes more than you. Your entire life
OK, she thought, let’s maybe put away the electronics. As they drove through the Slovenian forest, she and her teammates bonded, trading stories — what’s the craic, as they say in Ireland, meaning: “How are you?” or “What’s happening?”
Shelbourne’s Emma Stone has played in Ireland, Denmark, Czechia and Austria. If a team will give her a place to stay and enough to eat, she’s down to go. She’s in it for the adventure — football is a way to live in far-flung places and experience cultures and peoples she wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to know. Born with a condition called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, where her brain doesn’t tell her body to breathe when she’s sleeping, she’s always had to reserve backpack space for a BiPAP machine, a ventilator for when she sleeps. That hasn’t stopped her; she’s backpacked through 38 countries and does freelance writing to support herself on the side during the offseason. This summer she went to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, off-grid, for five weeks. “It would be cool to inspire more young women and footballers to just make a living being independent and following their dreams,” Stone says.
It’s not just O’Reilly. They are all in it for the thrill of the experience alone.
Their first night in the town of Murska Sobota, Slovenia, O’Reilly and a couple of teammates decided to leave their hotel to go out for ice cream. The person behind the shop counter spoke no English and they walked out with different flavors than what they tried to order. Next door, they popped their heads into a rinky-dink casino bar, just to see what it was like, taking in the two old men at the bar and the 100-year-old-looking slot machine before ambling onward.
As they walked through the night, O’Reilly kind of looked around and said, “This is pretty random. Definitely not the most random thing I’ve done, but still pretty random.”
Glennon, beside her, stopped her short: “Heather, are you kidding me? Not the most random thing? I’m literally walking down a dark Slovenian street eating ice cream with Heather O’Reilly, about to play in the Champions League — this is definitely the most random thing I’ve ever done — I have to be honest with you.” They laughed — really laughed — licking ice cream and walking back to the hotel in the dark.
Then, game day. Wenger sent O’Reilly a good luck video: “Hi!” he said. “We will think of you. I’m sure you will have a great game. We are behind you — we know you will be absolutely fantastic.”
As she warmed up, those first few minutes she was stiff — “I was thinking every pass, I was very conscious of my body and the way I was moving,” says O’Reilly, who had last played professionally for the North Carolina Courage in 2019. Here, her voice sounds both shy and elated: “And then I got back into my flow, like I’d never stopped.”
A bus of Shelbourne fans travelled with the team — family, plus a dozen other dedicated Shelbourne supporters. One supporter, John Langan tweeted: “I was to go to Portugal on a golf holiday but I asked Rob if we might go to Slovenia to watch @shelsfc instead. Best decision ever.” Kev Doyle, another, and his mate taught the families the chants and offered tips — drink lemon and honey so your throat can hang on. In the stands, they had as many fans as the Slovenian team, and the Shelbourne Reds supporters were loud — they always sing-shout “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley; “The Reds Go Marching On” and “My Girl” by The Temptations, swapping out “Girl” with “Pearl,” in honor of Slattery, team captain.
The game began and by the second minute, Shelbourne was awarded a penalty kick — and they missed. In minute four, a chance: Normally O’Reilly is the crosser of balls, not the receiver, but there was the ball, hanging in the air before her. She headed it up and over, and watched it sail into goal. She had scored a goal in the Champions League. Oh my gosh, she thought. I just did that.
The chills kicked in. Her teammates rushed her and there was all that momentum — but there were still 86 minutes to go. They eventually hung on — “Our goalkeeper played lights out,” O’Reilly says — and Shelbourne FC won their first Champions League match. In the stands the Reds supporters went wild: “We love Shelbourne, we do, we love you Shelbourne, we do …”
O’Reilly was greeted by a sea of text messages from her friends: “Boss Ass Bitch,” “Irish-American legend” and Wambach’s: “Yo, a goal for the win, you’re really f—ing cool and unstoppable. Happy you knew your dream and are going for it. It’s rad, you’re rad.”
Then there were those other messages — the hate mail from misogynists. They hadn’t died down. The trolls were all over her posts now, whether or not they had anything to do with Ronaldo. Her picture of a winding Irish road with the caption, “something deep about an open road” has 952 comments, most of them hateful, like they’re playing a game back and forth to see who can say the meanest thing. And then there are the DMs: Hang yourself. Kill your family.
“It’s a lot to unpack,” O’Reilly says. “I’ve never been cyber-bullied before. It gives me more empathy and insight into what people go through.”
When you travel around the world, playing the game you love, meeting people from all walks of life who share your passion, it makes you feel good about humanity. The internet world has the opposite effect. And maybe in the army of keyboard warriors who follow every mention of Ronaldo, there’s another takeaway: How lucky it is to not have the world looking at you all the time — to be able to play only for yourself and your club.
Shelbourne’s next opponent, the Icelandic team Valur, is professional and you could tell: They are bigger, faster, stronger, fitter. Just three days after O’Reilly’s epic game-winner, Shelbourne lose 3-nil to Valur, bringing their Champions League run to an end. “It was short but glorious,” O’Reilly says.
O’Reilly is grateful to Shelbourne for the chance. “I might have brought a lot to them, but they brought just as much to me.” She was struck by “how much care is put in, how much time and energy goes into it — from Liam [Kelly], who picked me up every day, to Gordon [Ewing], the club secretary. They’re all volunteers, people doing this for free, just out of love for the game.”
She has returned to Chapel Hill to continue coaching at UNC, but she has her eye on returning to Shelbourne at the end of September, perhaps in the role of player-coach. The team is still midseason and there’s a title at stake. She wants to help them win.
Meanwhile, her husband, who detests social media, had hoped the Ronaldo incident would be enough to convince O’Reilly to back off social media. And maybe it will. But for now, she just posts a video of Betty White dancing, as if to say, I’m a happy old lady and there’s nothing you can do to bring me down.
There’s a story that many soccer dreamers grew up hearing: 1992, Mia Hamm’s senior year at UNC, in Chapel Hill. She was out on the fields, running sprints by herself and head coach Anson Dorrance happened to drive by and see her. He wrote her a note she would one day include in the opening of her autobiography: “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when nobody else is watching.”
For the past few years, a different brunette has been running solo sprints on that same field — Heather O’Reilly has been the one who is bent over, drenched in sweat, with no one watching. The day Dorrance glimpsed Hamm running, she was 22, all her dreams still ahead of her. O’Reilly, 37, has already made her dreams come true, but she is always out there, anyway. And even after her run with Shelbourne ends and her career is once again over, you can bet she’ll still be on the field, running sprints on her own and playing in her lunchtime game with trash cans for goals.
Now that the women’s game is evolving and there is more investment, Eniola Aluko — former English national team player, current director of recruitment for the NWSL’s Angel City FC — has talked about how important it is to make sure “we don’t lose that really pure element of women’s sport.” In spite of having a law degree, Aluko opted to play football for years instead, even though she would have earned more working as a lawyer. That’s the thing about women’s sports: It’s always very clearly about love.
Izzy Glennon, the 22-year-old Dartmouth kid who couldn’t believe her luck when O’Reilly showed up, said her whole mindset changed thanks to O’Reilly. “It allowed me to see this [Shelbourne] experience as a bigger experience and not just a soccer endeavor,” she says. She’d been unsure of who to be now that her college career was over, figuring this Irish stint was probably the end for her.
But now O’Reilly’s gone and inspired her. “I realized that I don’t have to be done with soccer at 22,” Glennon says. “When I play, I enter a new world, which I kind of forgot about when I was in college. I love it and I want to keep playing at a highly competitive level — which I didn’t realize until she came here. And, after that, beer league. I probably will play forever.”