Heather O’Reilly has done it all in her prolific career, and the former U.S. women’s national team star now can check a Champions League run off her soccer bucket list.
The 37-year-old came out of retirement in July to join Ireland’s Shelbourne FC for the club’s Champions League stand. While the run lasted just two games, she described it as “short but glorious.”
O’Reilly’s USWNT career ended in 2016, and she officially hung up her boots three years later. But O’Reilly has stayed busy, serving as an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina, working as a soccer analyst and competing on “American Ninja Warrior.”
Still, she found herself hungry for more and missing the thrill of elite competition.
“Even though it’s my best friends playing in the NWSL, and on the national team, it’s challenging for me to watch,” O’Reilly tells Gwendolyn Oxenham for ESPN. “I don’t know, maybe I’m still grieving this former life and former identity. I’m envious of those who retire and don’t crave it — I do and I think a lot of other people do as well.”
A nagging desire to compete in the Champions League, a feat O’Reilly had never accomplished, drew the star out of retirement and to Shelbourne FC.
The stint was not lucrative for O’Reilly, as the Irish league is amateur — meaning no one gets paid. O’Reilly and Shelbourne FC practiced in the evenings, with most players working day jobs.
After getting acquainted with the squad, O’Reilly and the club headed out for their Champions League matchup against Slovenia’s Pomurje on Aug. 18.
On the journey, O’Reilly jokingly tweeted that she was playing in the Champions League at age 37, but fellow 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo was not. (Ronaldo’s team, Manchester United, did not make the cut for the men’s Champions League.)
The playful post drew the ire of Twitter trolls and misogynists, forcing O’Reilly to endure significant social media backlash. Instead of leaning in, O’Reilly told ESPN she opted to put the phone down and embrace the moment with her team.
Heading to go play Champions League at age 37 and Ronaldo isn’t 🤣 HAO-7 pic.twitter.com/t7a8ph9or4— Heather O'Reilly (@HeatherOReilly) August 16, 2022
Heading to go play Champions League at age 37 and Ronaldo isn’t 🤣 HAO-7 pic.twitter.com/t7a8ph9or4
Her focus ultimately paid off, with O’Reilly notching a header to clinch Shelbourne FC the win over the Slovenia side. Not only had O’Reilly achieved her dream of playing in the Champions League, but she had also scored a game-winner.
A 𝐟𝐚𝐦𝐨𝐮𝐬 goal 🔴Three years after hanging up her boots.@HeatherOReilly scores her first goal in the @UWCL as the Reds beat ZNK Pomurje 1-0.#DublinsFinest | #Since1895 pic.twitter.com/BjeUxxPmCf— Shelbourne FC (@shelsfc) August 18, 2022
A 𝐟𝐚𝐦𝐨𝐮𝐬 goal 🔴Three years after hanging up her boots.@HeatherOReilly scores her first goal in the @UWCL as the Reds beat ZNK Pomurje 1-0.#DublinsFinest | #Since1895 pic.twitter.com/BjeUxxPmCf
Shelbourne FC’s second Champions League matchup wasn’t as successful, with the club falling to Iceland’s Valur 3-0 on Aug. 21, which knocked them out of contention.
While O’Reilly has returned stateside, the former USWNT star isn’t writing off a return to the Irish club. She’s looking a potential return at the end of September, possibly in the role of player-coach.
“I might have brought a lot to them, but they brought just as much to me.”