“I have goosebumps right now,” McDonald said — a bright, wide grin on her face. She looked like she was still amped from the game, as though she could go back out and play the next match right away.
“I was very nervous,” McDonald admitted. “It’s one of those moments that I’ve been waiting for my entire life.”
McDonald’s “entire life” is a little longer than her fellow World Cup debutante tonight, Tierna Davidson. The 20-year-old Davidson left Stanford earlier this year and began her first season as a professional player with the Chicago Red Stars. McDonald is 31 and has been playing soccer nearly as long as Davidson has been alive, some 19 years all told, with stints in three professional leagues across two countries. In NWSL alone, McDonald has famously bounced around as a journeyman player, suiting up for five different teams before landing, and sticking, at the North Carolina Courage when they took over from the outgoing Western New York Flash.
Before being named to the roster, making a World Cup squad was something that McDonald had accepted might never come. North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley apparently gave her his honest opinion in the middle of last season that he thought Jill Ellis had settled on her 23. McDonald said she puts a lot of stock in Riley’s word, and appreciated that he didn’t sugarcoat anything about her chances. “I’m just going to continue pushing and give everything I’ve got here because I’ve got no choice. It’s my job to,” McDonald said.
But then the call came last November that McDonald was wanted in USWNT camp. She was conveniently with Riley at the time, at his house in New York.
“[Riley] was like ‘Jess, you’re gonna do great. You’re gonna be just fine,’” McDonald said. “He was very confident from that point on that I was going to be here. Whereas for me, it was up in the air for me. Like, OK I’m going to give every camp all that I’ve got, that’s all I can do. I’ve got my chance, I need to take advantage of this because there are so many people in this world and I’m just this one speck that gets this chance.
“I’m a very small percentage in the United States that gets this chance to represent my country.”
McDonald said she didn’t rub it in Riley’s face that his initial assessment had been wrong. She had asked him to be realistic about her chances, and he was. From an objective point of view, not many could blame him — McDonald was always a longshot to make the roster, and even the most oblivious coach would have known it. But fast forward a year and there she was, grinning through her still-sweaty face and chugging a bottle of water while taking questions from media about her first World Cup appearance.
McDonald subbed on to start the second half, going in at the top of the USWNT’s 4-3-3 and pushing Carli Lloyd deeper into midfield. That’s quite a vote of confidence from Jill Ellis, displacing someone already on a brace, but McDonald continued to make the US attack fun to watch.
“It was amazing to hear my name,” McDonald said when she was called up from the bench to enter the game. “I was like ‘what, me, really? OK let’s go.’”
But as befits someone who has utterly thrived in Paul Riley’s mental pressure cooker at North Carolina (see: his relentless underdog psychological tactics to keep his team motivated and hungry) McDonald said it didn’t take long to settle down. “Once I got my first touch out of the way I was like, ‘OK I completed my pass. I’m OK. I’ve been doing this for about 19 years. I got this.’”
McDonald hit what might have been the golazo of the group stage in the 62nd minute, when she cut inside her defender and teed up a long-range ball with a nice curl that sailed past the outstretched fingertips of Chile’s goalkeeper, Christiane Endler. Not nice enough, though, as it clanged off the outside of the post. McDonald laughed when the inevitable mixed zone question popped up, moaning that she didn’t want to be reminded of missing the shot.
“I was very confident on that shot,” she said. “I thought it was going in. I was kind of celebrating and then it hit the post.”
Had the ball managed a little more curl, it would have beaten Endler — no mean feat in the second half, when Endler served up highlight save after highlight save (and was later rewarded with Player of the Match for her efforts).
“It was nice just to get a shot on goal and test this incredible goalkeeper,” McDonald said. “She was amazing today. To even get a shot off on her is a very difficult thing to do. She’s a big body in goal. At the end of the day, I gave it all I got.”
McDonald doesn’t really seem to know how not to give it all she’s got. That’s probably why she fits in so well with Riley’s Courage, and why she persisted in NWSL despite bouncing around the country for so many years with her son, now seven years old.
“I’m not just working for myself anymore,” she said, “I’m working for my kid as well, someone who’s actually looking up to me on a whole other level than the younger generation. Being able to inspire my kid with what I’m doing now, it’s going to help him succeed in the future, and that’s one of my main goals here. Is to try and succeed on the field, and succeed as a mother.”
McDonald was just shy of a stunner in her first ever World Cup game, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success. Longshot, 23rd woman, surprise call-up: none of those labels matter anymore. Jess McDonald played in a World Cup, and played well, and nobody can tell her any different.