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The very long road back for soccer standout Jessica McDonald
USWNT star fought injury, uncertainty
 
Published Thursday, May 28, 2020 3:12 pm
by Cole Villena | UNC Media Hub

PHOTO | TROY HULL
Jessica McDonald (22), fought back from a devastating knee injury and multiple trades to win a pair of National Women’s Soccer League championships and the 2019 World Cup title. McDonald plays for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage.

Professional soccer players aren’t supposed to smile when they get subbed off.


They’re supposed to fight for every minute of playing time, especially when they’re on a team as competitive as the North Carolina Courage. They’re supposed to savor every moment on the field, especially when they’re about to win a game as big as the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League championship.


Then again, maybe Jessica McDonald’s earned the right to smile today.


Her two goals are the reason the North Carolina Courage are cruising to a 3-0 victory over the Portland Thorns, who beat them in this same game a season ago. When she walks off the field in Portland in the 92nd minute, she hugs the player replacing her, then her coaches, then every teammate she can find. Her enormous grin never leaves her face.


The final whistle blows. The reality of the Courage’s triumph begins to set in. McDonald takes one last swig of water and sprints toward her teammates.


McDonald is buried in the mob of Courage players. When she finally finds space to move, she thrusts her arm to the center.


“Let’s break it down, N.C. on three,” she yells. “One, two, three —”


“N.C.!” the champions shout back.


McDonald should never have become that champion.


She was supposed to have stopped playing soccer after she injured her left knee during her first professional start in 2012. It was a career-ending injury, the doctors told her, but she recovered in 18 months.


McDonald shouldn’t be the one that teammates trust to lead their championship celebrations.


She’s supposed to be the striker that joins a club, becomes its leading scorer and then gets traded away before she has time to get comfortable. She played for half of the teams in the NWSL before joining the Courage, sometimes not even getting a full season before being forced to relocate.


At the very least, McDonald shouldn’t have to wait to celebrate her championship with her family. The love of her life is almost 3,000 miles away — 6-year-old Jeremiah McDonald is watching his mom from a living room in North Carolina, counting down the days until she gets home.


McDonald was supposed to have given up on a professional soccer career when Jeremiah was born 19 months after her knee injury. She started playing soccer again as soon as possible anyway, becoming the NWSL’s first single mother and fighting to provide for her son on barely a five-figure salary.


Now 32, McDonald is one of seven mothers in the NWSL today. She’s also the league’s fourth all-time leading goal scorer.


“None of it makes sense,” says Dave Cameron, McDonald’s friend and former coach at Phoenix College in Arizona. “People coming from where she comes from don’t make it… ever.”


Wander
Jessica McDonald wasn’t smiling.
Just 10 minutes into what was supposed to be the first of many starts as a professional, she was carried off the field on a stretcher. The doctors told her that it was a torn patellar tendon and that her chances of playing at an elite level again were slim to none.


“I was just running, and then my knee just ruptured,” she says flatly. “No contact.”


Her professional career was over before it began.


McDonald, who played college soccer at North Carolina, spent the next 18 months in rehab, watching as players her age broke onto the U.S. Women’s National Team without her. Ten months into recovery, McDonald found out she was pregnant.


When Jeremiah Brandon Ellis McDonald was born on March 7, 2012, though, his mother realized the only impossibility was the idea of giving up on her dreams.

“I have no choice but to be successful for that little boy,” she says. “I want this to be an inspiration for him when he’s older to be great at whatever it is that he wants to do with his future.”


McDonald inched her way toward playing fitness, but two months after Jeremiah was born, Women’s Professional Soccer ceased operations. With no American teams to play for, McDonald moved by herself to join the Melbourne Victory of Australia’s W-League for the 2012-13 season. She became the league’s third leading scorer that season, regaining her scoring touch and taking the Victory to their first Grand Final in club history.


In 2013, the National Women’s Soccer League formed. McDonald got a call to join her former club, the Chicago Red Stars, signing with them soon after her return to the United States.


In 2014, McDonald was traded to the Portland Thorns. It was her fourth team in three seasons, and her third NWSL team in a little over a year.


Off the field, McDonald struggled to provide stability for herself and for 2-year-old Jeremiah. While Jeremiah’s father, Courtney Stuart, attempted to build his career from their home base in Phoenix, McDonald was left to care for Jeremiah on her own.


“Oh, it was a horrible experience,” she said. “Whenever I got traded, I had to find a whole new babysitter, find someone else that I could trust with my child.”


In 2014, the maximum salary for a NWSL player was $31,500. Like most players, McDonald says she made much closer to the league minimum of $6,600 and supplemented her income by coaching private soccer lessons. Her $1,000 a month NWSL paycheck wasn’t even enough to cover childcare some months, forcing her to bring Jeremiah to team training grounds in a stroller and pray that he didn’t need anything during a practice.


“I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, and I didn’t know if I was doing things right,” she says. “I truly questioned myself, just simply as a human being.”


Flash
McDonald moved to Germany to train with Herforder SV during the NWSL’s 2014 offseason. It was a dream move, she tweeted at the time: For once in her career, she and her family were all moving to the same place as she played the game she loved. She scored on her debut for the club in September 2014, enjoying herself while playing for a relatively low-tier team.


“It ended up being fun,” she says. “That’s exactly what I needed coming from Portland, because I wasn’t in a good place mentally.”


Three months later, McDonald was traded to the Houston Dash. She’d done everything she was supposed to do, but she was traded. Again.


“At least there was always a team or a coach out there who has wanted me in this league,” she said. “That’s been the most humbling part about my career so far.”


McDonald was the Dash’s leading scorer in 2015. The February after the season ended, she got a call from Dash managing director Brian Ching. She’d been traded to FC Kansas City.


“I was like, ‘That’s sweet,’” she says. “They had just come off of winning two NWSL championships, so this is a sick team at the time.’”


Minutes later, she got another call from Kansas City manager Vlatko Andonovski. Ching had left out a key detail: the deal between the Dash and FC Kansas City was actually a three-team deal designed to bring USWNT regular Sydney Leroux to Kansas City from the Western New York Flash. McDonald was effectively being shipped out for a second-round draft pick.


“There were all these different excuses from these coaches and GMs to trade me,” McDonald says. “It was like a slap in my face, because I felt like I was doing what I could for every team that I’ve been on.”


McDonald said she “hadn’t heard anything good” about playing in Buffalo, projected that season to finish last in the NWSL. The move also coincided with a low point for her financially — the money she made from playing and coaching private lessons was no longer enough to live on, and she took a “nightmare” job packing boxes at an Amazon factory during the 2015-16 offseason.


“I told my agent I was going to retire, because I didn’t want to go to Buffalo,” she says. “I was actually really done in my career.”


The only thing that kept her around, she says, was hearing that Paul Riley would be leading the Flash once she got there. She stuck around, if only to get one last season under the manager that had helped her become the NWSL’s most dangerous goal scorer.


In 2016,  McDonald became an NWSL champion. She didn’t get on the scoresheet that game — but she did assist Lynn Williams’ game-tying goal in the final minute of extra time.


“It was a really good feeling to be a part of a program that was kind of overlooked, a program that wasn’t this winning dynasty or anything like that,” she says. “It was just this fresh new feel with the girls on the team. It was amazing.”


Courage
McDonald loves the fact that North Carolina has four seasons. She has friends just down the road from her in Chapel Hill. She loves that her son has friends here, too, and that they’ve had time to figure out their favorite spots together.


“It really doesn’t get any better than being in Carolina for me,” she says. “This is second home, and it always has been, and now I’m making it my primary home.”
Of course, she also loves playing for the most dominant professional sports team in the United States.


The Courage have held the best regular season record every season they’ve played since moving to Cary in 2017. They came one goal short of winning the postseason title their first season. Then they won the next two NWSL Championship games by a combined margin of 7-0. In 2018, they staked a claim as the best women’s club soccer team in the world by defeating Olympique Lyonnais in the Women’s International Champions Cup final.


McDonald hasn’t been the leading goal scorer in any of the Courage’s three seasons. She’s content being the player that’s scored a game-winning goal against the entire NWSL, helping her team grind out wins from 3-2 to 1-0 and everything in between.


Leading the line at the best club team in the country earned McDonald her first call up to the full U.S. Women’s National Team in 2016. She’d seen player after player make the team since turning pro in 2010, watching from home as they’d made consecutive World Cup finals and won in 2015. Now, just three years out from the 2019 World Cup, she was getting another shot at a dream she thought had passed.


“The reason that I stuck with being a pro and continued to play in the NWSL is because I wanted to make the national team,” she says. “There was a certain point of time in my career where I accepted the fact that I would probably never be on the team.”


The call ups stopped after the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, and the United States gave attacking roster spots to World Cup veterans like Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Tobin Heath. Midway through the 2018 season, McDonald sat down with Paul Riley.


“Have I got any chance of getting on the national team?” she asked her coach point-blank.


Riley knew better than anyone that McDonald was one of the most elite scorers the NWSL had ever seen. But he also knew that the United States was full of elite scorers — ones who’d been playing in World Cups since before Jeremiah was even born.


“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t see it,” he told her. “Unless you do something absolutely fantastic in the league.”


For the first time in her career, 30-year-old McDonald did what she was supposed to do: She accepted the fact that her national team dream was dead.


Then she did something absolutely fantastic in the league anyway by scoring three goals in the 2018 NWSL playoffs and earning championship MVP.


USWNT manager Jill Ellis invited her to the team’s training camp a month after the NWSL championship game. Then she invited her to the next one, and the next one and the next one.


“I had two NWSL championships in my back pocket, I won two NCAA championships, that’s satisfying enough,” McDonald says. “But then it hit me, and I was like, ‘Wow, there actually might be a chance.’”


Home
On July 7, 2019, the player who should have given up 1,000 times became a World Cup champion. For the first time in her life, though, Jessica McDonald knows exactly where she’ll be once the season ends. Her son knows exactly what to expect when he gets back from school, even if his mom is away on a business trip scoring game-winners and serving up assists.


“As an athlete, you always want that ‘home’ feeling, that comforting feeling,” she says. “For us to just have the core of our team together still since 2016, that’s the cherry on top. I’m with my girls, too.”


For the first time in her life, Jessica McDonald is comfortable. That’s not going to stop her from charging forward.


“I would say, ‘What a great end to a career,’ but I don’t want to say she’s going to end her career any time soon,” Riley says. “I have a feeling that Jess Mac’s getting stronger and quicker and better than ever.”


For now, though, she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be: With her teammates. With her family. With her son.
Home.

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