Tonight’s the night to honor Heather O’Reilly

141020 WNT v HAI HAO game face

by TOM SLATER

When the United States Women’s National Team makes their first foray back onto the field after a disappointing early exit to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, there’ll be lots of questions that will need answering.

Who will be goalkeeper? Will Carli Lloyd have time to fit the match in between her book signings? Will Megan Rapinoe kneel, sit or stand during the national anthem? When will the national anthem be played?

All these questions will be answered on Thursday night when the United States hosts Thailand at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2) and on Sept. 18 against the Netherlands (7 p.m. ET on FS1) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The match against Thailand will be the first meeting between the two countries. The United States has played the Netherlands seven times.

But all these peripheral issues take away from who the night should belong to: Heather O’Reilly.

It’s been a roller coaster year for O’Reilly — from little used reserve in the 2015 World Cup to a stellar Victory Tour to being an alternate at the Olympics. And she approached all of these different ebbs and flows the same way — with class and a smile. During her 15 years with the national team, there’s been three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup championship. She’s bridge the gap between the 1999 World Cup champs of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck to the current squad of Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn.

O’Reilly will be captain on Sept. 15 in her final international match. All the year’s frustrations will be put aside to recognize one of the classiest — and most talented — players to wear the red, white and blue. And let’s not forget the intensity. And the face.

Her college coach Anson Dorrance called it her “angry chicken face” that she exhibits when she is ready to compete, which is all the time. Raised New Jersey-tough, her face personified fierceness as she battled her way past defenders to send a dangerous cross in to the penalty area, airmailed for Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd or Alex Morgan.

“The game face is hard to put into words because I don’t really know that I’m doing it,” O’Reilly said. “Basically when I compete in soccer, as everyone has seen, for some reason I get this intense look in my face. It’s funny because off the field I’m pretty upbeat and positive but once I get on the field and the whistle blows, it gets very serious and intense, and I put on the game face.”

Those attributes are just as important to her as the 231 caps, the 52 assists or the 46 goals.

And she’s the ultimate teammate. In both college and in international play, her assists nearly matched her goals. Her United States Women’s National teammates have taken to Twitter to let her know how much they think of her and will miss her.

And it’s time to put all those other distractions and disappointments aside — for the record Rapinoe said she will stand for the Star Spangled Banner so as not to detract from O’Reilly’s night  — and just recognize someone who plays to play. Someone who loves the game for the pure competition.

It’s the least that can be done to one of the game’s all-time competitors.

Coach Jill Ellis named 21 players to the roster for the September games. The obvious absence is goalkeeper Hope Solo, who has been suspended six months by US Soccer and had her contract terminated. Solo has also decided to sit out the remaining National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) games for the Seattle Reign.

Mallory Pugh, the wonder child of 2016, will miss the game with Thailand because she will be with the U20 team. She will be available for the Netherlands match. Morgan Brian also won’t play against Thailand after getting hurt playing for Houston.

Rapinoe, who saw limited action in the Olympics, is also on the roster. Rapinoe made national news over the last week for kneeling during the national anthem in an NWSL match two weeks ago.

“We are really looking forward to both of these matches,” Ellis said. “These first two games will all be players who were at the Olympics and then in October, we’ll really start to focus on the new cycle. One of the most important things in this first game against Thailand is to celebrate Heather O’Reilly’s wonderful career and honor her with a send-off befitting her tremendous contribution to our program. I am certain the fans and our players and will make sure it’s a very special day.”

US WNT Roster
GOALKEEPERS (2): Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
DEFENDERS (7): Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (Western New York Flash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
FORWARDS (4): Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (Real Colorado)