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'I just need the ball' - Lavished with praise and awards in the US, Denise O'Sullivan chases more

The Republic of Ireland international plays in her third successive NWSL final later tonight after another superb season.

Image: Brad Smith/ISI Photos

NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE are the best team in the NWSL. They’re the reigning champions and play in their third consecutive final later today. The squad features a multitude of elite personnel, including four 2019 World Cup winners.

But, it’s Denise O’Sullivan, from Cork’s northside, who is their standout.

For the second straight year, her team-mates have voted her Most Valuable Player. And her manager, Paul Riley, is running out of platitudes. 

“A gem”.

“A workaholic”.

“Rolls Royce engine”.

“Incredible soccer IQ.”

“Stalwart”.

“Pure class”. 

“The best phone call I ever made”, he’s said about that moment in 2017 when his interventional conversation led to O’Sullivan reversing her decision to leave America behind after a confidence-sapping spell at Houston Dash. Instead, buoyed by Riley’s words, she rolled the dice and hasn’t looked back since.   

Though she was an NWSL Shield winner (awarded to the top team in the regular league season) and beaten championship finalist in her debut campaign, O’Sullivan stepped everything up and enjoyed a spectacular 2018 that started in the summer when the Courage pulled off an impressive ICC tournament victory by beating European heavyweights Lyon in the decider. Domestically, they finished as NWSL Shield winners again and avenged their defeat from twelve months earlier by besting Portland Thorns in the championship final.

This season, the Courage started slowly but finished strongly. In between, they navigated the mid-summer loss of half a dozen first-choice players and were narrowly pipped to another ICC win. From their final eight league games, they lost just once and the sequence included back-to-back games against Portland and Orlando where they found the net six times in both fixtures. Picking up another Shield for their troubles, they faced Megan Rapinoe’s Reign FC in the championship semi-final last weekend. And in a strange encounter which they heavily bossed, they leaked a last-gasp equaliser before scoring three extra-time goals to win at a canter.      

“We dominated for the entire game”, O’Sullivan says. 

“We created so many chances in the first half, it was crazy. Overall, we had 34 shots on goal, 14 of them were on target and we were well on top. So there were a lot of positives to take from it. But we just did video analysis on the game after training and it was a split second of losing concentration. They had a throw-in down in the corner and a few of us just lost our marks. The ball ended up with Ifeoma Onumonu and she ended up megging our keeper. It was a bizarre goal. But it definitely stemmed from losing concentration. We probably thought the game was over and we had it won. And then that split second…”

1-3 Denise O'Sullivan is looking for her second successive NWSL title later tonight. Source: Jose Argueta

Concentration has been a buzzword all week for O’Sullivan and her team-mates. Through the course of our conversation, ‘focus’ is referenced quite a bit. 

The Courage have a target on their backs and are undeniable favourites. Today’s final – against Chicago Red Stars – will be played at the Courage’s own stadium in Cary, which brings its own pressure. And there’s an added layer of emotion with decorated veteran Heather O’Reilly (three Olympic gold medals and one World Cup with the United States) playing her last game before retirement.       

“Because it’s at home, it is a bit weird”, O’Sullivan admits. 

“Usually we’re always in another city and, just by having the game somewhere else, you wouldn’t have any distractions. You’re in the hotel, you go training, you’re back to the hotel. So it’s different being here for the build-up. We have families, boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever and they’re distractions in themselves. So many people have family coming in for the game and Paul (Riley) said earlier that we need to stay focused. He doesn’t really want us hanging out with them and doing things with them. He wants us to stay off our feet and doesn’t want us showing them around the place. He just wants us to focus and not lose it. I’m lucky because my family are back in Ireland so I have no-one coming over here. I’m just doing my thing, my normal routine. But there was a lot of media this week so once we got that out of the way, we could get focused.” 

But, I’m very happy the game is being played here. It’s something we always wanted as a club: to have a championship final, to have all our fans at home, to have the advantage of that. So it’s quite exciting and I just can’t wait for it to come around now.”

Though the World Cup left many teams short during the season, the Courage navigated the situation well. And O’Sullivan is quick to point out that the club’s US-quartet of Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper and Jessica McDonald brought an infectious positivity to the setup after returning from France as champions. The other Courage players fed off it and that injection of feel-good spirit certainly aided them in seeing out the campaign so impressively.       

“We struggled a little at the start of the season”, O’Sullivan says. 

“I think it was seven or eight players from our starting XI were missing for a full month. And our US players were away even longer. So we had our up and downs and we struggled without them but once we all got back together, got a grip of things and got used to playing with each other again, we’ve got better at everything. Better all around the park. And that shows in the stats. More goals scored and less conceded than last season. We keep building every single year and we’re definitely getting better as a team.”

But once our US contingent came back from the World Cup, you could feel it in the locker room again. The vibes. It was definitely different. We were fine when they were gone and the vibes were always good but you just felt that extra bit of energy when they got back. They were so excited and ready to play again. It brought us more energy.”

“This year, for sure, is different because of the World Cup. Like, the attendances is a big one. Portland hit 26,000 and that’s a record but there were other teams that racked up their own records too. And that’s down to the US being crowned world champions, for sure. The fans want to show up and watch the likes of Crystal and Sam (Mewis) and the likes of Debinha and (New Zealand’s) Abby Erceg. So they’re coming along to see world-class players who have participated at the World Cup and who’ve won it too. So I’ve definitely noticed that, the big buzz in the stadium and us getting more fans along to games.”

In the semi-final against Reign, they looked explosive at times and it’s a well-oiled machine at this stage. Riley’s formation, a 4-2-2-2 with a midfield box, means O’Sullivan and Mewis sit deep and offer some protection. It’s slightly unorthodox but highly effective and it means both Debinha, a magical Brazilian, and Dunn, a playmaker despite her defensive role at the World Cup work in tandem to support a front two of McDonald and Lynn Williams.     

1-2 O'Sullivan was set to return to Europe in 2017 after a difficult time with Houston Dash. But Courage boss Paul Riley persuaded her to come to North Carolina and she hasn't looked back. Source: Andy Mead/ISI Photos

“Fair play to Paul because he built that – starting years ago – from the ground up”, O’Sullivan says. 

“We’re connected all over the field. The midfield system isn’t that familiar: two defensive midfielders and two attacking midfielders. But I feel that when I get on the ball in a defensive position, I always have options. It’s crazy. Whether they’re in front, beside me, our full-backs pushing up or our strikers dropping in, I’m never without a choice. And we have such creative number 10s in Debinha and Crystal. Having them in front makes my job a lot easier and then our strikers are quick. We can play into their feet but they’re really dynamic so you can play in behind and they’re gone in a flash so that’s how we can create so many chances.”

It’s funny because, honestly, I never saw myself as a six. Like, years ago, if someone asked me to play there, I never would’ve seen it. But Paul – the football genius that he is – turned me into one. I’m pretty happy there. Defensively, I still get a great buzz. Blocking balls, intercepting, opening the game up. It’s just in my nature to do that – just from growing up back in Cork and playing with the boys. I’m small but I’m quite aggressive and physical.”

Earlier this week, Riley was suggesting the Red Stars went into this final as favourites because of the head-to-head record this season. It was a stretch and nobody was really buying it, though Rory Dames’ Chicago outfit have repeatedly been up to the task. From three games, they picked up two impressive wins and drew the season opener in Cary.

The common denominator? Australian attacker Sam Kerr.

She’s already scored four times against the Courage this term and finished the league season with a record haul of 18. In the championship semi-final against Portland last weekend, she was the inevitable game-winner. Along with the Golden Boot, she also picked up the league MVP award. But, it’s not just Kerr the Courage have to worry about.     

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“We haven’t beaten them yet so we’re eager”, O’Sullivan says. 

“They’re a very strong side and they match us up athletically, which is a big thing for them. Sam (Kerr) is world-class and scores goals for fun, so that’ll be a big task for us, to watch her and keep her quiet. But they have (Yuki) Nagasato too, a midfielder, and her partnership with Sam is really good. So the more we keep her off the ball, the less service Sam is going to get.”

Does that mean O’Sullivan has been given some specific marking instructions? 

“Honestly, I don’t know yet. But I think myself and Sam (Mewis) will have a lot to do with trying to keep Sam (Kerr) off the ball and block those passing lanes.”

1-1 O'Sullivan has been lauded once again this year and was voted MVP by her Courage team-mates for the second straight season. Source: Andy Mead/ISI Photos

Though Kerr was an undisputed MVP winner, the NWSL end-of-season awards have come in for plenty of criticism, most notably the league’s unveiling of its Best XI. The voting handed 20% of the input to fans and supposedly 40% to players. But there’s been a substantial backlash to the selection from some of the highest-profile names around. Carli Lloyd opined there were ‘lots of uneducated people’ while Alex Morgan replied to the league’s Twitter reveal with a simple ‘Huh’. Meanwhile, another US international, Allie Long, called it ‘embarrassing’. The inclusion of a litany of US players – many of whom played infrequently this season due to the World Cup – is the source of irritation. One of the stars of the tournament, Rose Lavelle, started just five games but still made the cut. And for many, O’Sullivan should have been included alongside team-mates Debinha and Dunn.

Last week, the trio – along with four other Courage players – were all named in the NWSL Players Association’s Team of the Year.

Not that O’Sullivan cares much about personal accolades.       

It’s nice to get them, especially when it’s voted for by your team-mates. They’re lovely to have and I’m really honoured to pick up the MVP award. But I’m not into these individual awards. They don’t really bother me. I just want to get to the final, play the game and win the game. The most important things for me are the team and the final.”

Back in 2017, O’Sullivan popped up with an 89th-minute winner against the Red Stars in the championship semi-final.

Something similar later this evening would be pretty special. 

“We’ll see about that”, she says with a laugh.  

“I had butterflies before the semi-final and my stomach was going ninety. I know it’ll be the same for the final. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s good for me to have that bit of pressure and once I get my first few touches and complete my passes then I’m fine. Totally fine. I definitely need the ball in the first few minutes. The longer the game goes on without me getting a touch, I get anxious. I just need the ball.” 

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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