The unlikeliest of American World Cup journeys came full circle in a doctor’s office. There, on an otherwise mundane weekday in North Carolina, during a routine checkup on a reconstructed knee, a 31-year-old single mother disintegrated into snotty, messy tears.
Six life-changing words had just hummed through her phone. They justified unparalleled sacrifice and filled Jessica McDonald with indescribable joy. “You’re going to the World Cup,” U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis had told her, and emotions spilled everywhere.
They had congregated inside her over decades and across time zones, primed by hardships that on multiple occasions nearly ended her career. Nine years earlier, on her first professional start, McDonald’s knee planted and popped. The diagnosis was a torn patellar tendon. “My chances of playing at a high level” again, she says, “were very, very slim.”
And the chances of not only recovering, but enduring “horrific things,” and grim financial realities, and towel-throwing urges, to become the USWNT’s lone mom on soccer’s biggest stage?
To say they were even slimmer doesn’t do this story justice.
McDonald’s eventual World Cup teammates were teen prodigies and top-ranked recruits. They are magazine cover girls and Olympic gold medalists and household names. All 22 of them had earned national team call-ups by the age of 23.
At that same age, Jess McDonald was injured, pregnant and without an American pro league to sustain her soccer dreams.
“Science told me no,” she says eight years later, in an upbeat and reflective mood with her first World Cup on the horizon. And science wasn’t the only thing. Coaches, economics and conventions all had their say.
“They told me no,” McDonald reiterates.
“Here I am, though.”
A turbulent past
On the worst of days, Jessica McDonald would sometimes turn to poetry. Specifically, when in need of inspiration, to Maya Angelou. And occasionally to the butterfly – to an Angelou quote that McDonald can’t quite recite word-for-word, but whose message resonated.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly,” Angelou once wrote, “but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
And this butterfly? The one who glowed with enthusiasm at USWNT media day, then fluttered across the Atlantic to France?
She’s gone through more than any of us could imagine.
McDonald was born and raised in Arizona, to a father who was in and out of prison and a teenage mother who battled addiction. Jess recently opened up, ever so slightly, about the verbal abuse and household troubles that marred her childhood. But she prefers to keep much of that private.
While she intermittently hopped around to the homes of relatives, though, she graced local fields and courts with eye-popping athleticism. In high school, having already captured state championships in soccer and basketball, she broke a state record in the 400 meters. She headed to Phoenix Junior College as a three-sport star, then to the University of North Carolina as a JUCO player of the year. In Chapel Hill, multiple coaches fought over her scholarship. She chose Anson Dorrance and soccer, won two national titles, and graduated to Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). She rose gradually in Chicago, an innocent second-round rookie living and learning, playing the game she loved.
Then, on her first start, she felt the pop. Medics rushed toward her. A stretcher carried her off. A doctor delivered gut-wrenching news: The pain she’d felt, the result of no contact whatsoever, was her patellar tendon rupturing. It was far worse than an ACL tear. It would require two years of rehabilitation. And by the time two years had elapsed, not only would WPS be extinct; she would be a mother. While future USWNT teammates sought clubs overseas, her career was effectively over.
McDonald, however, shunned historical precedent and norms. She had trained eight months into her pregnancy term. A few months after giving birth to her son, Jeremiah, she jetted to Australia without him to revive her soccer dreams. The formation of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) the following year allowed her to find her footing stateside.
But never for long. Over a three-year span, she was waived by Chicago; signed by Seattle; traded to Portland; dealt again to Houston; then again to Western New York. Prior to the 2015 season, she’d signed an offseason contract with a club in Germany. She’d worked 11-hour days packing boxes at an Amazon factory to supplement her barely five-figure NWSL salary. Prior to the 2016 campaign, for neither the first time nor the last, she nearly gave up.
“That was when it really hit me,” she recalls. “Like, OK, maybe I am done. Maybe this is it.”
Back home in Arizona, though, she relayed those thoughts to an uncle during a “deep conversation.” She was “tired of being broke.” Tired of scraping every day to simultaneously provide for Jeremiah and chase sporting ambitions.
Her uncle’s message that day stuck with her: “Look, you have this capability. You have this skill that God has given you. You need to continue using it if you can. You were given this small chance of even playing again, and here you are. … Why give up now?”
‘How are we gonna eat?’
In the Disneyfied version of McDonald’s story, that might be the turning point. A heart-to-heart chat. Some inspirational advice. And a revelation. But this is real life. And, frankly, answers to her uncle’s question – why give up now? – were plentiful.
The NWSL’s minimum salary is $16,538. From 2013 to 2016, it was less than half that. The max is $46,200. The team-wide cap, $421,500, comes in underneath the individual salary floor of North America’s three major professional sports leagues.
“Allocated” national team players make significantly more than the max. But for the rest, NWSL pay “really sucks,” McDonald says matter-of-factly. “Especially for parents. … Childcare is not cheap!
“And if you look at paychecks, you look at childcare,” she continues … “there goes our paycheck. How are we gonna eat?”
That was the more applicable question as McDonald bounced between nine different cities on three different continents from 2012-17. Not why give up now? But rather how can you afford not to? It’s a question to which the league hasn’t offered satisfactory answers. It’s why professional soccer moms remain few, and why early retirements remain many.
Not only was McDonald “paid pennies”; she was afforded insufficient support as a mother. In the early years, without the money to hire it on her own, she was all but forced to bring baby Jeremiah to practice, where he once wailed on the sidelines in a stroller, irking coaches as Jess tried to tend to him. And when he accompanied Jess to away games, if her performance was substandard, some coaches, she says, would blame her poor play on his presence – which in their eyes was a distraction.
In general, McDonald says, the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns, in 2013 and 2014, were particularly unaccommodating. The North Carolina Courage, her current team, have been “great.” But the league as a whole, she argues passionately, must do more. The season is too short. “Just getting paid for six months out of the year,” she says, “is unacceptable in any kind of job.”
It’s why she toiled on her feet at the Amazon factory – “Absolutely horrible; one of the worst experiences of my life” – and why, even after winning an NWSL championship in 2016, she continued to consider hanging up her boots.
But occasionally, when she would creep dangerously close to the brink, she’d remember a vow she’d made to herself. Her own parents had discarded sports to raise children. “And I didn’t want to use that same excuse.” So she kept pushing. Kept grinding. And, that offseason, she got a call that changed her life – just not the one you think.
The first call
When the email from Ellis arrived in her inbox, four months before her 29th birthday, after a call from club coach Paul Riley to pre-deliver the news, Jessica McDonald was almost in disbelief. But not necessarily joyous disbelief.
She had gotten her national team invite. Despite it, thoughts of retirement never left her mind. “Because I was throwing in the towel at the time,” McDonald says. The endless sacrifice had drained her. She was getting the opportunity she had so desperately craved, the one whose nonexistence two years earlier made her wonder: “Maybe I’m just not good enough.” Now she’d been told she was. Yet her reaction was less enthused, more confused. Amazed and grateful, she clarifies, but conflicted.
“OK,” she thought. “Am I done? Or am I not done? Do I take this opportunity? What does this mean?”
Her turning point was another phone call that winter, a “mysterious” one that informed her the Western New York Flash were moving to North Carolina. On the surface, it was more upheaval. For McDonald, though, Carolina was a second home. “So that was more so my pick-me-up,” she explains. She settled with Jeremiah, and into a first-place team.
Ellis’ call-ups, meanwhile, stopped coming that spring. But mother and son were more comfortable than they’d been in a while. Last summer, McDonald sat down with Riley and solicited honesty: “What are my chances of going to the World Cup?” Riley, mindful of a USWNT striker depth chart stacked with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Christen Press, gave her just that: “Jess, I don’t think there’s any chance.”
“And I was content with that,” McDonald says. “I was so content with that. … I felt great. … My kid’s in school. He’s comfortable. This is our life.”
Around the time McDonald and Riley had their heart-to-heart, that life had changed again. There had been “another horrific event” – again, the type she’d rather not make public. And in the aftermath, an “epiphany.” It was late July. It was, she recently revealed, the last time she spoke to her mother.
“And it really hit me that I was serving a purpose,” McDonald says. “It really, really hit me in a different kind of way. And it completely shifted my mindset. Like, I need to just give – everything that I do, every single day – my all. I just need to. Life is short. We have one life to live. And I need to be able to push for my kid.”
She pushes in every avenue of life, as an athlete and a mother and so much more. She takes Jeremiah to playgrounds and birthday parties. Picks him up from school whenever possible, sometimes coming straight from the airport to brighten his day. He is her why, his name etched in ink on her left arm.
Last fall, mother and son moved in with a local family whom Jess met through soccer. While Jess is away, Dan and Martha Rockaway care for Jeremiah. But Jess still checks in, synchronizing her schedule with her son’s from afar, surprising him via FaceTime. She’ll call, for example, right after his bath and ask him about it. “Mommy,” Jeremiah might respond, “how do you know I took a bath?!? You know everything!” Says Martha: “It’s like she was here.
All the while, Jess is training relentlessly, with the unwavering drive she promised herself she’d maintain. And even in her 30s, according to Riley, she is improving. From August 1 onward, she closed 2018 with four assists and four goals in seven games. She won a second NWSL title with two goals and an MVP performance as the Courage beat the Thorns in the championship game.
Ellis was at Providence Park in Portland on that triumphant afternoon, and saw a player who, she says, “In big games, shows up.” Who has “psychological mettle.” Who, at 5-foot-11 with leaping ability, can be unplayable in the air. Whose finishing has improved. Whose long throw is menacing.
All of which is why Ellis handed McDonald her first call-up in 20 months last November, and hasn’t dropped her since. Her inclusion on the World Cup roster, come April, was a near certainty. But the call was nonetheless overwhelming. In the parking lot after she’d received it, she FaceTimed Dan. Still bawling, she could barely even speak. But a thumbs-up sent Dan into tears as well.
“She’s a phenomenal individual, a remarkable mother, and also a sensational footballer,” he marvels. “I just don’t know how you can put all three of those together into one person.”
Blessed, not bitter
“There has only been a couple of things I’ve ever wanted in life,” McDonald tweeted after the roster announcement. “To make it and for my son to say he was proud of me.” When she walks into the Stade Auguste-Delaune on June 11, for the USWNT’s World Cup opener against Thailand, one of the two will have been accomplished. But the other?
The thought brings a grin to her face.
Jeremiah, now 7, will be watching on TV back in North Carolina, wholly unaware of how grand his mother’s stage truly is. “Buddy, we’re going to the World Cup!” Jess might exclaim, with age-appropriate explanations of the magnitude.
“OK,” Jeremiah might respond. “Can I have a toy?”
“He does know that Mommy’s playing in the World Cup,” McDonald says. “He doesn’t know what the World Cup really is.” But he will experience it. First from the Rockaways’ home, then, come the knockout stages, from stadiums in France. “He’s at an age,” McDonald points out, “where he’s actually going to remember this. He’s gonna look back and be like, ‘Wow, I was there. My mom actually is cool like she said!’”
Mom is savoring the entire experience as well, it putting smiles on her face and her genuine enthusiasm putting smiles on others. When reporters ask her to tell her story, she does so with thoughtfulness and pizzaz. When she found out her likeness had been made into a foosball character, she danced about, clapping her hands in childlike delight. She did not play in three pre-tournament friendlies, and may not play in France. She will infect peers with her exuberance regardless.
That’s the Jessica McDonald whom Dorrance still tells his UNC players about. The one he’s “dying” to write a post-soccer letter of recommendation for. The one who, he says, is “not bitter about anything” and appreciates “how blessed she is.”
“Whether we took her out after 15 minutes or ,” Dorrance says, “whenever she exited the field, she would be breathing hard. She would have a huge smile on her face. She would high-five the coaches and the rest of the players on the bench.
“It was basically: ‘I am so happy to be alive.’”
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