The University of North Carolina and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team are tied together more than any school and national program in American sports. Both were essentially built by Tar Heel legend Anson Dorrance, both have an enjoyed an unparalleled dominance of the women’s game, and both have owed their success to the revolving door of brilliant players that have made their way through Chapel Hill. From Carla Overbeck and Mia Hamm, to Tobin Heath and Crystal Dunn, Tar Heel brilliance has given way to American glory.
And few players have achieved more, both in Chapel Hill and on the international stage, than Heather O’Reilly. One of the defining players of her era, O’Reilly has been a mainstay in women’s soccer, gaining a reputation over a brilliant 16-year career as a tireless workhorse and elite playmaker on the wing. With her announcement on Friday that her season with the Carolina Courage will be her last as a player, it’s time to look back and appreciate the superstar that her teammates affectionately call “HAO.”
O’Reilly came to Chapel Hill in 2002 as the High School Player of the Year and top recruit in the country. She had led the U-19 U.S. Women’s Team to the title that summer and was ready to contribute from Day 1. She would win the National Championship in her freshman and senior years (2003 and 2006), the latter of which also saw her named All-Academic Player of the Year. However, it was away from Chapel Hill that her name really was ringing out.
She earned her first international cap in March of 2002, while still a high school student. She scored her first goal and registered her first assist in October that year in a game in Cary against Italy. A broken fibula kept her out of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, but the following year she was named to the 2004 Olympic squad. At age 19, she was the youngest player on the team.
O’Reilly’s first Olympic goal came in the semifinal against World Champion Germany. In extra time, after Germany had scored a last-minute equalizer, O’Reilly poked home the game-winning goal to send the U.S. to the gold-medal match, in what would be the swan song for her veteran teammates, known as the 99ers. Following those Olympics, O’Reilly, along with Abby Wambach, would become the centerpiece of the USWNT. Their playmaking/scoring partnership would become essential to the USA’s continued dominance on the international level.
O’Reilly would lead the USA into the 2007 Women’s World Cup, where they were defeated badly by Brazil in the semis. Despite the loss, O’Reilly was nominated by Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year. The following season, the U.S. would get revenge on Brazil in the gold medal game at the Beijing Olympics, O’Reilly’s second gold. She’d get her third in 2012 when the U.S. won again, thanks in large part to Alex Morgan’s iconic header against Canada, which O’Reilly assisted on.
Her long wait for a World Cup win would come to an end in 2015, when the U.S.A. returned to glory in Canada, routing Japan in the final 5-2. O’Reilly was used as a substitute, her position largely having been supplanted by Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath. She was eventually left off the 2016 Olympic squad, which failed to pass the quarterfinals, and announced her retirement from international play later that year.
In club play, she played in the WPS before it folded in 2012, and in the current NWSL, winning the 2015 Championship with Sporting K.C. She also had a short stint abroad, appearing in 24 matches for Arsenal Ladies.
She leaves the game with two NCAA titles, an NWSL championship, three Olympic gold medals, a World Cup, and the greatest “game face” in Women’s Soccer history. All hail the immortal HAO.