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'If he was here today he'd be on cloud nine seeing me going into a championship final'

Later today, Cork’s Denise O’Sullivan faces into the biggest game of her career and her late father will be a source of motivation.

It was the 89th-minute. It was a bit of an end-to-end game so anything could’ve happened and anyone could’ve won. We had a corner. It deflected off one of our players and dropped perfectly in front me. All I had to do was hit it as hard as I could and get it on frame. And there were so many players in the box I was like, ‘This has to hit someone and just go in – it’s got to go in’. And it did hit one of their players, I think it went through her legs, and she put the keeper the wrong way and that was it, really.”

DENISE O’SULLIVAN admits it’s a career highlight. And there are many reasons why. The most obvious is that the winning goal against the Chicago Red Stars put her side, the North Carolina Courage, into today’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship final. But there’s a lot more to it.

Earlier in the season, the Republic of Ireland international was being frozen out at a different team. Struggling at the Houston Dash, she admitted her lack of game time was ‘affecting everything’, including her happiness. She had arrived in 2016 but a ‘dream move’ to the US had quickly turned sour. Eventually, in July, she told the club she wanted to leave. The Courage acted swiftly to secure her services and now she’s 90 minutes away from being a champion.

“Never did I think about it or even imagine it,” she says.

“Going into the start of the season with Houston I thought it was going to be a good one. But that’s just who I am and how I think – with a positive outlook. But here I am going into a championship final so I’m absolutely delighted I ended up here.”

That goal in the semi-final was like a release. When the ball hit the net, there was a kind-of catharsis. It extinguished any doubt that may still have lingered after the Houston experience. O’Sullivan, the game-winner, the game-changer, belonged here.

Noticeably, in the immediate aftermath of scoring, she ran to the bench and jumped into the arms of her team-mates. She says it just made sense.

“It’s just what happened in the moment”.

“I think I was just so excited that I just ran, like. I’d say a few people got a few digs to be honest. Everyone was there and I just thought it was important to celebrate with them. Why not go to the bench and have everyone together? It was pretty cool, actually. There was no particular reason.

It’s definitely up there in terms of my best career highlights, for sure. It was just an amazing moment. It was my first goal for the club too. It happened at the perfect time, in the semi-final. Definitely the big highlight for me.”

Today’s final takes place at the 25,000-capacity Orlando City Stadium, home to the city’s Major League Soccer and NWSL sides.

The opposition is Portland Thorns, the side who finished as runners-up to North Carolina in the regular season.

They were the best team in the league in 2016 but failed to reach the decider and this is their first appearance in the final since they were crowned champions in 2013.

They have an abundance of high-profile, marquee names. There’s French international Amandine Henry, a three-time Champions League winner with Lyon. There’s US star Tobin Heath, a 2015 World Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist. And there’s also Christine Sinclair, an iconic Canadian attacker who, at 34, is seeking a fourth championship.

Denise O’Sullivan Source: Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I’m looking forward to being on the same field as her and playing against her,” O’Sullivan says of Sinclair.

“I think it’s going to be a really close game. It’s not going to be one-sided. It’s going to be tough and we’ll have to really work for it. I’ve played in Orlando a few times and it’s a beautiful stadium with a good surface. This team will be able to get the ball down and play so that’s a big thing for me.”

As part of a three-year broadcast agreement signed earlier this year, the game will be televised on national channel Lifetime while the official NWSL website will carry a live stream for international viewers, something that the Cork branch of the North Carolina Courage Supporter’s Club is especially grateful for.

“My whole family will watch and my extended family and they’re all excited to watch me play in a final and know how important it is for me,”O’Sullivan says.

“They know how much I wanted it and the kind of year I’ve had. And they’ve probably told half of Ireland the game is on so I’m sure there will be a lot watching.”

O’Sullivan lost her father, John, to cancer days before she signed for Houston.

He’ll be on her mind later.

“It definitely gives me motivation to go in and win that final,” she says.

“If he was here today, he’d be delighted, on cloud nine seeing me going into an NWSL final. He knew how hard I worked and it gives me a bit of motivation to pick up a championship medal.”

When we chat, a little over 24 hours before the biggest game of her career, she’s composed and relaxed.

Steady. And ready.

“I’m pretty calm, actually. No nerves or anything. I just chill and do what I normally do. It’s just like any other game for me.”

You can watch the 2017 NWSL championship final live via http://www.nwslsoccer.com.

Kick-off is 9.30pm Irish time tonight.  

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Cork’s Denise O’Sullivan grabs crucial game-winning goal as North Carolina book final place

‘It was affecting everything, my happiness. In the end I said, ‘I’m going to stand up for myself here”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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