Heather O'Reilly's USWNT legacy is defined by greatness, class

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

More than numbers or awards, Heather O'Reilly's legacy will be the character she brought to the field. Jeff Kassouf on the retiring USWNT legend.

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Whether professional athletes or the most average of Joes, we’ve all been asked it. We’ve all thought about it. ‘What kind of legacy do you want to leave?’

We’re faced with that existential question in all walks of life – family, work, faith. It’s a ubiquitous challenge, essentially asking how we want to be defined. And the most frustrating thing about it, for public figures more than anyone else, is that the answer comes from what the outside world decides.

Many athletes end up defined by their statistics, but the toughest of all legacies to keep intact is the one surrounding character; thus, it is one of the more coveted reasons for which a player can be remembered. There are many more good people in the world of sports than an often cynical and sensational media would lead you to believe, but for an athlete, it’s often difficult for your best qualities to shine through.

On Thursday, one of the classiest in women’s soccer stepped away from the highest stage of the sport. Heather O’Reilly announced her international retirement after 15 years with the U.S. women’s national team.

O’Reilly broke into the national team as a 17-year-old New Jersey kid and never looked back. By 19, she had already won her first of three Olympic gold medals, in Athens in 2004, a year after missing the World Cup due to a broken leg. She scored the game-winner in extra time of the semifinal against Germany in Athens.

And O’Reilly had plenty of other big moments, the most memorable being her assist on Alex Morgan’s latest-ever goal in the 123rd minute of the 2012 Olympic semifinal to beat Canada, 4-3.

At 31 years old, O’Reilly still has plenty left in the tank, and she says she’ll continue playing for FC Kansas City in the NWSL. She is still the most fit player on the U.S. national team, going so fast in recent speed testing that she maxed out the treadmill and had to increase the incline to add resistance, as fellow 2016 Olympic alternate Sam Mewis told FourFourTwo’s Richard Farley. Part of O’Reilly’s legacy will be her late-career mentorship of young players like Mewis and 18-year-old Mallory Pugh, the most hyped teen sensation since … possibly Heather O’Reilly.

It’s easy to see how she holds the U.S. record for consecutive matches played, stringing together an astounding 74 straight from 2007 to 2011.

But “HAO,” as she’s affectionately known, won’t be remembered for the stats (230 caps, 46 goals, 54 assists – all top-12 all-time). Instead, she’ll be remembered as one of the most quintessential U.S. women’s players ever, bridging five coaching staffs and several generations of players.

The value of mentality

She was never the most technical nor physical. Part of her brilliance was that she was unstoppable, even if slightly predictable; she wanted to beat defenders down the flank, get to the endline and get the ball on her right foot for service. Stopping her was easier said than done, and though the skillset doesn’t come with the flashiness of Tobin Heath or Marta’s dribbling skills, it proved equally effective and demanding of respect.

O’Reilly worked harder on the team which works hardest. She grinded on the team which grinds like no other. She ran faster on the most fit team in the world. She rose to the occasion, but never truly into the proper spotlight, playing the role of Robin to the Batman heroics of Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. She has one gear, still to this day, and that is all-out. You can physically see that work rate with the famed ‘HAO game face’ she has had in every on-field photo of her for the past two decades.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

A lifetime of HAO faces only add to O'Reilly's legend. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

Becky Sauerbrunn, O’Reilly’s teammate and captain for club and country told reporters repeatedly on Thursday, “that’s just HAO.” You know what you are going to get, every time.

“She’s always going to be known as just kind of the class act, the one that epitomizes everything that our national team stands for, which is class, graciousness, resiliency, relentlessness,” Sauerbrunn said. It isn't a coincidence that the No. 9 shirt O'Reilly inherited had been previously worn by Mia Hamm, a player who epitomized these same traits.

“I think those are kind of the things she’s – if you think of the women’s national team, I would definitely think of HAO,” Sauerbrunn continued. “I think she has everything that the national team wants to be known for.”

Humility is inferred there, which is essential to any great teammate. On Thursday, a still emotional O’Reilly told reporters she’d like to be remembered as exactly that, “a great teammate, working my ass off on the teams, being part of a lot of winning teams and trying to do things the right way.”

Legacies are complex. They are rarely defined by one-word answers. Look only to the whirlwind of the past week surrounding Hope Solo, the greatest goalkeeper the sport has seen and one of the most controversial figures in its history.

So it’s hard to summarize athletes in a word or two, O’Reilly included. But this much is true: O’Reilly was great, and she was classy all the way. NWSL fans will be happy to enjoy that for a little while longer.

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Jeff Kassouf is U.S. editor of FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.