Jessica McDonald's long, unusual journey to NWSL stardom

ISI Photos-Mark Howard

After five teams in four years, Jessica McDonald has finally found her place with Western New York. Richard Farley looks at McDonald's career to date, and what lies ahead:

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HOUSTON – At one table is Lynn Williams. The questioning is constant; understandably so. The second-year pro has just been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player, and one hour before that announcement, U.S. Soccer revealed the 23-year-old striker had been recalled to her first senior women’s national team camp. It’s three days before Williams’ team, the Western New York Flash, play for the NWSL title, but in some ways, media day has become about her. It may be the first of many, but this is her moment in the sun.

Jess McDonald’s table is right next to hers. The questions are relatively steady for her, too, since she’s back at BBVA Compass Stadium, where she led the Houston Dash in scoring last season. At the end of the session, though, when most journalists’ questions have been exhausted, she starts eavesdropping on Williams, eventually laughing as her strike partner tells a cameraman a joke at her teammate’s expense.

This is the dynamic between Williams and McDonald. It’s partnership. It’s support. Beyond press sessions, it’s also a pairing that has led to breakout seasons for both. For Williams, that means league honors, national-team attention, and a constant stream of reporters probing her thoughts before Sunday’s final.

For McDonald, though, that dynamic has led to validation. For the third year in a row, she has distinguished herself as one of the most valuable players on her team, but only in this moment, as Western New York is one game away from its first NWSL title, does it seem like the 28-year-old is finally being looked at as an established professional player.

“To be able accomplish those things, obviously I’m surrounded by a great group of players on the field, as well,” is McDonald’s first thoughts when trying to explain a 10-goal, seven-assist season. She’s the only player in the NWSL to rank in the top three in both goals and assists in 2016.

“Getting that kind of help from them on the field kind of brings my confidence up, and also playing next to Lynn Williams. If there’s pressure on me, I can relieve pressure off her. Those are the type of things that we feed off each other.”

Six-feet tall, relentless, fast and strong, McDonald has all the physical tools you need to be a standout forward in the NWSL. It’s why she’s been among the league’s more prolific goal scorers for three seasons running, but this season is the first time, after being shuffled among five teams in four years, that McDonald is being seen as something close to a star.

“I think that’s the difference between me here, now in Buffalo, [in] comparison to any other team [is] no other teams really relied on me the way Western New York Flash has.”

She has been with Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Houston, but only now does the second-leading scorer in NWSL history seem like somebody who is truly, finally entrenched in the league.

Grasping the breakout

Entrenched is the least you’d expect from somebody whose 31 goals trail only Seattle’s Kim Little (32) for the league’s all-time mark, but going into the year, few foresaw a player on the cusp of a breakout season. What they were more likely to see was a player who’d been let go by four other teams; somebody who’d been productive at previous stops yet not productive enough to keep teams from seeking other solutions; somebody among the elite in terms of chance creation but at times lacking the finishing touch.

“Adjusting to each team, [I just tried] to take the positivity out of each situation as possible,” McDonald says, describing her journeywoman past. “Yeah, it sucks going from team-to-team, five teams in four years, but I felt my comfort zone here, in Buffalo.”

That’s easy to say that now, after a season that, statistically, was as good as any in the NWSL. From the outside, though, the fit between McDonald and the Flash looked more precarious. Rejoining Paul Riley -- the coach who, sharing her finishing concerns, traded her from Portland to Houston two years ago -- there was little indication this would turn into a foundational season.

From the inside, things looked a lot different.

“This is the first organization to let me know, ‘Hey, we need you,’” McDonald explains. “’We need what you can bring to the table onto the field.’”

What she brought to the field was a target forward who could lead play alone up top, spearheading the setup Riley envisioned. What Riley quickly saw with Williams, though, was a potential partnership that could define how his team played soccer.

“Beginning of the season, when we won at [FC Kansas City] opening day, we played 4-3-3, “ Riley remembers of his team’s 1-0 upset of the defending champions. “We realized we wanted to get Lynn off the wing, get her inside alongside Jess. We switched to a 4-4-2 with a diamond, (and) we got those two alongside each other.

“[That’s] been the turning point of the season. The two of them have great chemistry together. The sum of both parts is greater than the individual. They’ve scored 21 goals between them, which has obviously propelled us into the playoffs. Anybody’d be silly to say that hasn’t helped.”

Continue: Overcoming several rejections