PHOENIX – Although more than 5,000 miles separate Phoenix and Reims, France, a few flights makes the path reasonably simple for most. For Jessica McDonald, her journey to the pitch of Stade Auguste Delaune was anything but simple.
McDonald, 31, is one of 23 athletes on the United States Women’s National Team that will represent their country in the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. The U.S. will start its defense of the 2015 World Cup title on Tuesday in a Group F game against Thailand.
The soccer-filled adventure started in the desert for McDonald. Born in Phoenix, she played seven years with the Arizona-based Sereno Soccer Club and attributes her growth to a coach, Les Armstrong, who is now the Girls Development Academy Director at SC del Sol.
Armstrong knew she had talent by a mere glimpse. He spotted her while watching her brother, Brandon, a former Major League Soccer player.
“Her brother was playing on a field. I looked across, there’s this kid, big skinny girl, smashing balls into the back of the net from 20-something yards,” he said. “We’re thinking ‘Holy Moses, this kid looks good.’ So we walked over and asked if she wanted to play competitive soccer, and that’s how we got her.”
McDonald was thankful for the opportunity.
“He was a very good coach,” McDonald said. “He was able to connect the dots and push us in a different kind of way than I’ve experienced with a lot of coaches. Because of how good of a coach he was, he was able to get my entire team scholarships to schools we’d have gone off to. That says a lot about a coach what he was able to do for us and to us as soccer players.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to play under him. He was a very hard coach to play for but in a good way. He instilled this tough mentality into us.”
The rebranded Sereno Soccer Club, now known as Real Salt Lake Arizona, has had plenty of influence on the U.S. women’s team. McDonald’s teammate Julie Ertz and 2015 World Cup team member Sydney Leroux also played for Sereno.
McDonald graduated from Cactus High School and attended Phoenix College. Many believed she had the talent to be a Division I standout right away but academics, she said, held her back.
After two years at Phoenix College to raise her grades, She landed at a Division I program. And not just any school, but the most storied in women’s collegiate soccer: the University of North Carolina.
Her two years with the Tar Heels reflected her experience with Sereno: success, talented teammates and an accomplished coach. UNC coach Anson Dorrance has been at the helm for all of the Tar Heels’ 21 NCAA national championships. As an added bonus, she wanted McDonald before she even went to Phoenix College.
The wait was worth it for Dorrance. McDonald joined a Tar Heels team that included players also on this year’s World Cup team. With Tobin Heath, Ashlyn Harris and Allie Long, McDonald won back-to-back national titles in 2008 and 2009.
After that is when McDonald’s self described “bittersweet” relationship with soccer took a turn. Selected as the 15th overall pick in the now-dissolved Women’s Professional Soccer league by the Chicago Red Stars, McDonald began her uphill climb. Five appearances into her rookie season, she suffered a major knee injury that forced her to miss the rest of 2010 and all of the 2011 season.
Coming off an injury and with the WPS folded, McDonald needed a new home. She had to travel to a far off place that she had never been before: Australia, where she played for Melbourne Victory FC in 2012.
The stint didn’t last long. She returned to the Red Stars in 2013 after the club joined the National Women’s Soccer League. She felt as if her jersey switched as often as the sun rose and set.
Chicago waived McDonald and she was later picked up by Seattle Reign FC. From 2013 and 2016 she was on a new team each season with stops in Portland, Houston and Western New York.
With the average annual salary for an NWSL player just slightly above $16,000, McDonald considered leaving soccer. Throw in the reality that she became a mother after the birth of her son Jeremiah in 2012 and soccer became close to an afterthought.
“There has been a lot of hard times during my professional career, then the other time I have gone through major injury,” McDonald said. “Being a mom, we don’t get paid much in our league either, so, I struggled at one point financially trying to support my child.”
In the end, the challenges made her thrive.
“My love for the game is what kept me going and going through all of that and has shaped me into the soccer player I am today.”
A rebrand of the Western New York Flash, McDonald’s NWSL team relocated her again. This time it was to a more familiar place. Before the 2017 season, the Flash moved to North Carolina and became known as the Courage. McDonald’s home stadium, WakeMed Soccer Park, is a 30-minute drive from her old university.
With three years of experience with the club, McDonald has found chemistry with a handful of teammates joining her in France.
“One cool thing about our North Carolina Courage team is that we all know each other as players,” she said. “Being at that type of comfort level – Crystal Dunn prefers this kind of ball, or I know Sam Mewis will do this, this and this when she’s on this part of the field, Iknow that Abby Dahlkemper plays this type of ball if I make this type of run – little things like that, knowing your teammates very well on the pitch, it helps a lot.”
With Tuesday’s opening match on the horizon, McDonald is prepared to deal with her emotions.
“I will probably be very nervous, but in a good way. I feel like going into the game and getting a feel for the game, I’ll calm down,” McDonald said. “Obviously once I get my first touch of the ball I’ll feel a little more relaxed. I know from the start I’ll be very nervous but excited at the same time.”
Armstrong expects McDonald’s playing time during the World Cup to be limited because the main rotation is set. He does see a way for her to get on the field, however. She has a reputation for thriving in clutch moments.
She scored the lone goal for UNC in its 2009 national championship game against Stanford. In the 2018 NWSL championship, she scored two goals for the Courage against Portland to win the title and most valuable player of the match. If needed in a crucial situation, she’ll be ready, and one of her biggest fans in Arizona will be cheering for her.
“She’s a very special kid,” Armstrong said. “I wish her all the best. I just hope she gets on (the pitch) and scores a goal in this World Cup because that’d be a nice way to cap it all off.”