O’Reilly Settling in With Arsenal Ladies

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by JACK BELL

One the many adjustments Heather O’Reilly needed to make when she joined Arsenal Ladies in January was among the most prosaic — learning to expertly operate the washer and dryer in her apartment north of London.

The plain fact was that early on, until she figured out the many dials, gizmos and settings, all her clothes shared one overriding and embarrassing feature: They all came out wrinkled.

“The washer/dryer was extremely complicated, at least to me,” O’Reilly, 32, said in a telephone interview. “I went through the first week doing my training gear and it all came out so wrinkled and I looked a mess. Then we were invited to have lunch in the men’s cafeteria and for the first time I met [Manager] Arsène [Wenger]. The whole time we chatted all I’m thinking is how wrinkled everything I was wearing must have looked!”

After winning last year’s World Cup, the three-time Olympic gold medalist signed an 18-month contract to play for the Arsenal Ladies. After retiring from international play after last year’s Women’s World Cup, this is the first time O’Reilly, a New Jersey native, has opted to play professionally outside the United States.

“I’ve really enjoy it,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve lived overseas. I’ve traveled a bit with the national team. But this is an adventure in some ways. Just the small nuances. Things are slightly different. Driving on left side of the road was hilarious and difficult at the same time. I like to say I was a danger to society for a few days. The small things until you get settled. I had to open a bank account, get things for my flat, figure out directions. All that leads to some fun stories.”

O’Reilly is one of the most capped players in the history of the women’s game, playing 231 times and scoring 47 goals for the United States after a stellar career at the University of North Carolina. After college, she put in her time in various U.S. women’s leagues, playing for Sky Blue in New Jersey, the Boston Breakers and most recently FC Kansas City.

But unlike several of her former teammates on the national team — Carli Lloyd (Manchester City), Alex Morgan (Lyon) and Crystal Dunn (Chelsea) — O’Reilly’s time in a U.S. uniform is behind her as she can see life after playing soccer on the horizon — though that view could be from the sideline. The questions about national team commitment do not apply. O’Reilly has paid her dues and is ready for her European adventure, certainly not vacation.

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Photograph by U.S. Soccer

Arsenal Ladies play in England’s Women’s Super League. The team is the defending F.A. Women’s Cup champion (having won that title 14 times). Before this year, the league played a summer schedule, which changed this year to align with the game across the rest of Europe. So the 10 teams in the top division will play only a nine-game spring schedule (beginning in late April), but embark on an 18-game slate in September.

“She is a world-class player and one of the most respected players in the U.S.,” Manager Pedro Martínez Losa said in a statement. “Her determination and character will make a big difference for this club. She will bring here a legacy of values, hard work and professionalism which will also help our young players to develop. It is a privilege for us to be able to bring her to Arsenal Ladies.”

In winning last year’s F.A. Women’s Cup, Arsenal Ladies played in front of a record crowd of more than 35,000 at Wembley Stadium. O’Reilly said the goal is to get back to Wembley, where she hopes to drink in the charged atmosphere so common to games in England.

“It’s an exciting target to look forward to,” she said. “It’s already been amazing to be with people who love the game and have such a passion for it. It’s so accessible all the time and it’s so refreshing. Every newspaper, on multiple channels on TV. It’s what everybody is talking about.

“It just feels like these are my people. Men, women and children talking about football and players and performances and nuances of the games, something that maybe we don’t get in large circles in the U.S. It’s been really cool for me and refreshing, and good for me in terms that I’ve always watched games in the U.S., One of my goals to being over here is to indulge myself in the football culture and what better place than Arsenal.”

O’Reilly echoed some of the comments made by her compatriots now playing in Europe, pointing out that play soccer over there is a full-time proposition.

“In my brief stay, so far they certainly treat this like it’s a job in terms of professionalism,” she said. “You’re expected to be there 9-10 in the morning and we’re not leaving until 3-4 in the afternoon. It’s a full day of professionalism in terms of spending time with the team training with the team, lunch, weights. You’re part of a big club, a brand, an identify that’s very strong and historic.

“In terms of football I’m impressed with the level I’ve seen over here. Everyone is tactically aware. You can tell the players have watched the game their entire lives. Just the way they approach tactics and the questions they ask in terms of dissecting the game more in depth and being more tactically aware than in the U.S.”

What does she miss the most about home?

“I miss some of the players who have been my teammates,” O’Reilly said. “I miss my home in Chapel Hill. My husband, my family. The food is better than expected. I miss not having a bigger car. Everything’s so tight. Yeah, a car, country music. The sun. Definitely the sun.”