A JuCo transfer, a National Champion, an injury-plagued rookie, a real “soccer mom”, an NWSL MVP, a player’s rights advocate, and now, finally, a World Cup team member. These are all one woman, and her name is Jessica McDonald, one of the USA’s brilliant players who has for the first time, at the age of 31 and after several years of not even being in the national picture, earned a trip to France to defend the USWNT's world title. But this competition is nothing new for Jessica: Her entire career has been one scrappy battle against the odds after another.
McDonald was born in Phoenix, AZ and after impressing local scouts in high school, committed to Phoenix College, a junior college. She quickly established herself as one of the preeminent strikers in her division and, in her sophomore season, Anson Dorrance came calling: His 2008 Tar Heel squad was a talented squad that included future USWNT standouts Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, and Whitney Engen, but they were in need of another forward. McDonald transferred to Chapel Hill midseason.
Though she didn’t play the full year, she still tallied 5 goals and 10 assists (the most assists on the team), helping to lead the team to yet another National Championship. After one more year at Chapel Hill, she was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2010 WPS Draft. Then, things started to go wrong.
Six games into her rookie season, McDonald ruptured her patellar tendon, an injury that she was told would take 18 months to recover from. To make matters worse, the WPS folded at the conclusion of the season. Then came an even bigger challenge:
While rehabbing the injury, she became pregnant with her and her husband Courtney’s son Jeremiah. This threatened to derail the difficult rehabilitation process, and also Jessica’s future as a player. The daughter of two multi-sport parents, she has talked about how she always felt conflicted about how her parents had to choose between parenthood and their athletic dreams, and decided for herself she would try to do both. And, especially as the two combined in this tough point in her journey, she drew on her faith for inspiration going forward. She has discussed the importance of that last bit to her recovery throughout her career.
McDonald would train during her term, even while eight months pregnant, and, once finally recovered, headed to the Australian Women’s League to join Melbourne. In 2013, with the creation of the current NWSL, McDonald was back in the States and drafted yet again by the refurbished Red Stars, but was quickly traded to the Seattle Reign...and then the Portland Thorns in 2014. (For those keeping track, that’s four different cities, on opposite sides of the globe, for a mother and her baby in a two-year window)
In Portland, she seemed to finally have been handed an opportunity: The Thorns were Alex Morgan’s team, but Morgan had gone down with an injury before the season began. McDonald stepped into the starting role, performing brilliantly alongside Canadian Olympic heroine Christine Sinclair. McDonald led the team with 11 goals, one of which was scored in 33 seconds (still the fastest in NWSL history). She was named to the NWSL Second Team for her strong play.
But when Morgan returned, McDonald was out. She was relegated to the bench without much of a chance to compete for the starting job that she had performed so well in. And in the offseason, she was unceremoniously traded to the Houston Dash, where she would remain in 2015. In 2016, she was on her way to the Western New York Flash, where she would finish 3rd in the league in goals and assists and would help lead them to an NWSL title.
That pattern of excelling in whatever situation she was thrown into paid off in 2016, when McDonald earned her first call-up from the national team. In 2017 she was once again traded, this time to the North Carolina Courage.
In North Carolina, where ten years before she became a National Champion, she once again found postseason glory. During the 2018 season, the Courage set an NWSL record with 53 total goals and marched into the playoffs. In the Semifinal game, McDonald scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory. Then, to top if all off, she scored two goals in the title game, which the Courage won 3-0 over...the team that had benched her, the Portland Thorns. For her terrific postseason, McDonald was named the MVP of the NWSL Championship Game. Here’s her game-sealing goal:
But beyond winning two league titles and garnering individual awards, McDonald has also been an advocate for players’ rights, especially mothers’ rights, in the growing women’s game. In 2017, when her former UNC teammate Yael Averbuch formed the NWSL Player’s Association (the first union the women’s domestic league has had), Jessica vowed to be an active voice in the union. In particular, she has called attention to the fact that league contracts don’t include child care, despite many players being or becoming mothers while in the league.
Which brings us to today, where Jessica is now fighting for another goal she hasn’t accomplished yet: A Women’s World Cup. Like Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, and Christie Rampone before her, McDonald is looking to become the USA’s latest world champion soccer mom. And not that stupid middle-class stereotype, but rather a soccer-playing, inspiring mother who wants to inspire her son and also a new generation of young players.
Earlier today, Jill Ellis announced her final 23-player roster for the 2019 Cup. There were the stalwarts: Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz, etc. But right behind them were those on the cusp, including, in her first World Cup appearance, forward Jessica McDonald, and she is expected to challenge, if not to start, than for serious playing time. Her play in the last year has certainly earned it, but with the USWNT’s embarrassment of attacking riches, it was possible that Ellis would try and shore up the defense instead. It's a gratifying latest milestone for McDonald.
Jessica McDonald is a rock star and those of us who love Carolina sports, the Beautiful Game, and kickass moms in general should be rooting for her.