HAO

Right Side, Strong Side

When I became a U.S. Women’s National Team fan in 2011 and more so in 2012, it was because I fell in love with the personalities of the players on the team. As you may know, they got my attention after their dramatic 2011 Women’s World Cup Semifinal win against Brazil on penalties. I watched the rest of that World Cup and realized how amazing these women were at their craft. It was a year later when I got to know them as more than just athletes though. I watched videos, read articles, books, and interviews, followed twitter accounts, and in turn learned so much about these incredible role models. They had a strong core group of players lead by Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. They had young rising talent in Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. They also had several players in the middle of the pack who brought special elements to the team. Some were around for years, while others made their way into the lineup over the last cycle (the 4 years between World Cups). One of those players was Heather O’Reilly, who I quickly learned was known to the Women’s Soccer world as HAO (pronounced Hey-Oh) (O’Reilly’s initials which stand for Heather Ann O’Reilly).

The New Brunswick, New Jersey native made her USWNT debut in 2002 while still in high school. She played alongside 1999 Women’s World Cup heroes Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Brianna Scurry. Then she began her storied college career at women’s soccer powerhouse, the University of North Carolina under legendary head coach, Anson Dorrance. At UNC, she was a part of 3 National Championship winning teams and also made the USWNT roster for the 2004 Olympic Games, where she helped the team to Olympic Gold. After college, she continued with her USWNT career and played professionally once women’s leagues were again formed in the U.S. by joining Sky Blue FC in the WPS and the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City in the NWSL. HAO currently plays for FC Kansas City. As a member of the USWNT, O’Reilly played in 230 matches, scored 46 goals, assisted on 54 goals, won 3 Olympic Gold Medals (2004, 2008, 2012) and 1 World Cup Championship (2015), out-performed everyone on the beep test multiple times, and displayed a limitless amount of game faces. HAO has been nothing short of incredible. Tonight she will play her final game as a member of the USWNT. She isn’t retiring from the game of soccer by any means, just from international play. Nonetheless she will be missed tremendously on the world’s stage.

With the additions of many new faces to the USWNT in the past year, HAO’s playing time dwindled. I’m guessing it may have played a role in her decision. Despite that and the fact that she was named an alternate for the 2016 Olympic Games, I didn’t see this one coming. It hurts a lot more than the rest. She’s only 31, which is on the older player range, but still not as old as some. HAO was also a part of the USWNT for so long. She was a part of that core group I began following when I became a fan and part of a special duo that most fans of the team know and love.

As a midfielder, HAO played along the right side of the field. Somewhere along the way, which I believe began around the 2011 Women’s World Cup, she formed an in-game connection with right outside back Ali Krieger and the phrase “right side, strong side” began. I’m not sure who coined the phrase. It might have been an announcer, a fan, or even the pair themselves, but it became known among the USWNT community that #9 and #11 in the game equals right side, strong side. They might have coined the phrase themselves because they use it too. Hopefully HAO and Kriegs take the field tonight and play one last time dominating the right side of the pitch. Either way it will surely be an emotional night for HAO’s family, friends, teammates, coaches, and fans who watched her perform for the red, white, and blue. She’s the true definition of world class and represented U.S. Soccer in the best way possible. Thanks HAO for all you’ve done both on and off the field. Right side, strong side forever!

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The Countdown Continues: Send Off Series Game 1 USA vs. IRL

THREE….

Sunday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, CA the USWNT squared off against Ireland in the first game of a three game send off series before the 2015 Women’s World Cup begins on June 6th (June 8th for the USWNT). They secured a 3-0 victory in a dominant performance over the Irish women with goals from Abby Wambach (2) and Julie Johnston. The team was without forward Alex Morgan who was resting her minor injury, a bone bruise in her left knee. Defender Ali Krieger was back in the lineup after being out for a month with a mild concussion she sustained during the first game of the NWSL season while playing with her club, the Washington Spirit, on April 10th. She was also sporting a trendy headband aimed to help prevent any further head trauma.

Compared to the last friendly a little over a month ago, the team had a slow start as far as finishing goes, but possessed the ball incredibly well in the first half. Christen Press created numerous opportunities for herself to put one in the back of the net. Forwards Wambach  and Amy Rodriguez also had some chances at putting shots in the goal, which Wambach eventually converted. The work of Meghan Klingenberg on the left flank and Krieger on the right flank helped to create scoring opportunities as well. The USWNT played a large portion of the first half in their attacking third. It wasn’t until the 42nd minute that they made a dent in the scoreboard though. An Ireland defender tried to clear a Megan Rapinoe corner kick that hit her own teammate, who was guarding the back post, in the face. The shot to the face subsequently prevented an own goal for Ireland. However, after bouncing off the face of the Irish defender, the ball landed at the feet of Press who delivered a pass to Wambach to finish the play. Wambach put in another goal in the 45th minute when Carli Lloyd sent a cross to her at the far post. In patented Abby fashion, she finished it with a header as the U.S.A. took a 2-0 lead to the locker room.

The second half saw plenty of subs for the USWNT as Lori Chalupny, Morgan Brian, and Sydney Leroux entered at the half for Krieger, Rapinoe, and Rodriguez. Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, and Shannon Boxx came on later in the half. About 10 minutes into the second half, defender Julie Johnston flicked home a Lauren Holiday corner kick just inside the near post. It was Johnston’s third international goal and her third in the last three matches. The USWNT failed to convert any more chances in the rest of the time remaining despite some quality opportunities they had. Ireland goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke came up with some stellar saves. Starting U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo did not face any shots in the game nor did she have a single touch on the ball. It was a purely dominant effort by the ladies in red, white, and blue (but mostly different shades of blue with a little white and a trace of red mixed in) especially when it came to possessing the ball and controlling the game.

Of note in the first match of the send off series was that this was the very first time in the history of the game that the players of the USWNT were accompanied on the field by their mothers who flew in courtesy of Fox Sports to surprise the team for Mother’s Day. It was a special moment for the players and their moms and will be a lasting memory for years to come.

As I watched the game today, it felt like the team was a bit off. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say they regressed from where they were a month ago because they controlled the game. The only difference was the beautiful one-two touch passing exhibited during the New Zealand friendly was less evident. The finishing wasn’t there either which continued as a theme from the last match. These two things are minor though. It’s difficult to be perfect every game, but if any team can be near perfection it’s the USWNT. Fortunately they have 2 more games as a group to get to that level. The next one is in a week, May 17th 9:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. PT in Carson, CA (coverage on FoxSports 1), but time is of the essence. 28 days remain until Game 1 of the group stage versus Australia. The players are anxious. The excitement is mounting. The hype is real. Two more to go until the fun begins.

Qualified. Not Satisfied.

In 223 days, the 2015 Women’s World Cup kickoffs in Canada and the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) will be a part of it. For the past week and a half the team has been competing in the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament which allows three teams from the CONCACAF region to qualify for the World Cup. With a win against Mexico last night the USWNT became one of the three. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the match in Philadelphia where the U.S. put up a 3-0 victory to secure their spot. The win also guaranteed them a spot in the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament championship match on Sunday at 6 p.m.

When I was growing up, I never would have guessed that I would become a soccer fan. In fact I remember thinking and saying to myself at one point several years ago while flipping TV channels and landing on a soccer game that I would never attend a pro soccer match or ever be interested in a game. Now, here I am, a day after attending a soccer game. Things change. I guess the only thing to point out is that the game I attended was a women’s soccer match but that game on TV was all men. I’m sure there’s a difference between men’s and women’s soccer but I don’t watch the guys so I wouldn’t know (aside from some of the World Cup this past summer). I love watching the women play though, but especially this group pulled from all areas of the United States.

Thanks to the internet, social media, Youtube and other technology I was able to learn a lot about the players on the USWNT. I don’t just mean facts about them either. In this technological age you really get a feel for what kind of a person someone is by what they say on social media, how they act, or what their interests/opinions are. It’s super incredible. At the same time though, it’s only half the story. Someone could be entirely different from how you expect them to be. Even if that is the case, I would still have to argue that we’re better off finding out more about people than we were before all this technology happened, especially with social media. U.S. Soccer has done a great job with their youtube channel to introduce/interview players and show their personalities through special videos that don’t just show highlights from the last match (although they have those too). Because of the youtube videos, instagram, twitter, tumblr, and other internet sources, I really fell in love with this team of individual athletes since I first started to pay attention to them in July 2011. There’s nothing I want more for them than to win the World Cup next year.

It’s evident that they want it too. The United States hasn’t won the World Cup since 1999 which made players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy household names. The route to the final in 2011 put this current group of players in the eye of the sports world, but they fell short. Next year a large majority of those same players will be playing in front of the world trying to achieve what all but one have yet to accomplish, winning a World Cup (Christie Rampone was the only current US player on that 1999 squad). Ever since the loss to Japan on penalties in 2011, these women have been training to make it back to the World Cup final and come out victorious. At this point though the 2015 Women’s World Cup may be the last for many players on the squad. This amazing group might not look a lot like they do now in 2019. Abby Wambach has spoke of retirement. Christie Rampone plans to retire after the tournament (she’ll be 40 when it’s over). Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, and Ali Krieger are already in their 30’s. Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O’Reilly will be 30 before the World Cup begins June 6th. Megan Rapinoe turns 30 the day the final is scheduled to be played. Lauren Holiday, Kelley O’Hara, Amy Rodriguez, and Tobin Heath will also be in their 30’s by the time the next world cup comes around. All the players mentioned above were with the team in 2011. That’s a large chunk. With age, health and fitness issues can come into play. Not only that but players may even want to start families and pursue other opportunities. So for me, for other fans, and for this team, the time is now. It’s win the World Cup or bust.

Of course who knows, maybe in 2019 a lot of those players will be around, but I just have this feeling like that won’t be the case. They know 2015 is the year. They’ve been ranked as #1 in the world for quite awhile and the 2015 Women’s World Cup is the time to prove it. So last night when the final whistle blew, I could feel the good vibes flowing from the field, but it was only for momentary celebration. They made it. They’re going to Canada. They qualified, but there’s no way they’ll be satisfied until the World Cup trophy is in their grasp and gold medals hang from their necks.

(As a side note, if you didn’t pick it up by reading this, the USWNT plays in the championship of the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament tomorrow at 6 p.m. ET. It’ll be on Fox Sports 1 if you’re interested in watching. I promise they’re fun to watch.)

Right before kickoff of the USAvsMEX Semi-final match last night. Sorry for the iPhone quality.

Right before kickoff of the USAvsMEX Semi-final match last night. Sorry for the iPhone quality.