Heather O’Reilly has been on every side of this.
The former United States Women’s National Team midfielder was a part of the World Cup heartbreak in 2011, the jubilation in 2015 and now she is playing the role of nervous spectator.
“I was a complete mess watching it on set to be honest,” O’Reilly, now a studio analyst for Fox Sports, said in the hours following the nail-biting semifinal win over England.
“I don’t think I was very fun to watch with because I was freaking out. It’s a lot harder to be a fan because you don’t feel like you can help the team.”
O’Reilly will have to deal with that feeling one more time Sunday morning when the Americans take on Netherlands in the World Cup final. It comes after three consecutive 2-1 victories in the knockout stages over Spain, France and England with each win more memorable than the previous one.
The days after the win will be about getting healthy — stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle are both dealing with hamstring injuries — and keeping a high level after draining wins over two of the top teams in the world.
“From a mental standpoint, the last two games have been crazy emotional,” O’Reilly said, remembering the heartbreaking penalty-kick loss to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final.
“There was just a lot going on in beating the home country and then the England game had so many turns. The players will have to process that and then it’s like, ‘All right, how do we find all our reserve of energy?’ This has been a long month, but now direct it to the final. … You have to finish the job.”
In 2015, they exacted revenge against the Japanese in the final in what was the most-watched soccer match in the history of the country with 25.4 million total viewers.
The scrutiny on this team has grown in the past weeks, from the celebration controversy against Thailand in the opener to President Trump speaking out against Rapinoe following her comments about not going to the “f–king White House.”
“There has always been some sort of story about this team and outside influences,” O’Reilly said. “The team does a wonderful job of head down and get the job done. The bigger the moment the more these players step up. They’ll be ready for whatever is thrown at them.”
Their support has also grown with six straight victories on the field. It started with the goal-scoring prowess of Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, but it was two huge saves against England — one on a penalty kick — by goalie Alyssa Naeher that got the Americans to this final.
“The thing about every elite player is that they can’t be anybody but their best self,” O’Reilly said of Naeher, who spent years as Hope Solo’s backup. “And you see somebody like Megan Rapinoe step into the spotlight, someone like Alex Morgan be on the covers of magazines and back it up on the field, then you see someone like Alyssa who quietly goes about her business.
“She doesn’t have a personality that’s going to be in the spotlight, but she is a steady and reliable teammate whether she has been a starter or not. It’s cool to see Alyssa do things her way: not making headlines in the newspaper, but keeping your head down and being a good teammate. She is a phenomenal athlete, so to see her make those two saves, was really impressive. I am just incredibly proud of her for all those times working behind the scenes and this one huge moment it comes down to her and she stepped up big.”