LYON, France — Like every other member of the United States women’s national team, Jessica McDonald wants to win the World Cup Sunday. It’s just that she has a motivation that is unique among the 23-player roster.
She wants to win for her son.
“I’m out here not just representing the state I am from, not just my family name, not just the United States, but all the moms out there,” McDonald said Wednesday before U.S. practice. “That’s super cool for me.”
McDonald, 31, has a 7-year-old son, Jeremiah. She is the only mother on the squad.
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The challenges are everywhere – physical, mental, emotional and so on. McDonald understands the grind; she is a veteran in the National Women’s Soccer League. The World Cup though is a long, pressure-filled tournament. The American team has been in Europe going on five weeks now, a period that was preceded by training camps and a nationwide send-off tour.
There is essentially no normalcy for the players.
Jeremiah came over in the middle of the tournament. And while seeing her son has lifted McDonald’s spirits, each visit is fleeting. The job of practice and preparation is all-encompassing. The other players have only themselves to focus on. McDonald knows better than to cheat the team.
“What I am working hardest for is for my kid, for a better future for him,” McDonald said. “I want this to inspire him. He’s at an age where he’s going to remember this. He’s going to remember being in France. And hopefully whatever it is he does in the future, this is going to inspire him.
“So that, deep down, is what makes me so happy with this experience, because he’s a part of it as well,” she continued.
McDonald’s journey here has not been direct. A native of Glendale, Arizona, she played collegiately at the University of North Carolina and was on a number of the junior national teams. She never managed a call-up to the top squad, though. Her last international appearance came with the Under-23 team in 2009.
Jeremiah came along in 2012, in the middle of a seven-year stretch where McDonald competed on a number of professional teams, but not the USWNT as it won World Cups and Olympic golds. With each passing year, her chances grew dimmer. Generally the team is going to take chances on younger players who might still blossom.
Then in 2016, at the age of 28, she got called up. She was unusually old for a debut. McDonald considered it a lifelong accomplishment but not necessarily one that would lead to more than a few appearances in friendlies or smaller tournaments.
She did appear in a few games. There was also a nearly 18-month stretch when she wasn’t with the team. It seemed her time had passed. Yet she never stopped dreaming of the World Cup and thus never stopped trying to make the team.
“I wanted to be able to tell my son that I went for it,” McDonald said.
When coach Jill Ellis finalized the World Cup roster this spring, McDonald was on it.
“When I got my first cap I never thought I’d be here,” McDonald said. “… Since I had about a year and a half break from the national team, I thought my chances were kind of out the window.
“To be here now, I am overwhelmed with joy because I am surprised. My journey has been up and down a little bit. Everything that has to do with success for me has sort of become a shock to me. You work so hard, you work so hard and it happens, you’re like, 'What, wait, it’s happening to me?'”
McDonald is neither a star, nor even a starter. It is very unlikely she will play in Sunday’s World Cup final (11 a.m. ET). Her job here is mainly to serve as a practice player that helps the regulars stay sharp and prepared.
Part of this is the reality of being an American. McDonald could play, if not start, on nearly any other team in this tournament. You just have to embrace it.
“To be [among] the 23 best in the world,” McDonald said, “is a really humbling experience.”
During group stage play early in the tournament, Ellis rewarded her by subbing her in during the second half of the Americans’ 3-0 victory over Chile. It meant Jessica McDonald had earned a very rare title: World Cup player.
“Do we think about [playing more]? Probably,” McDonald acknowledged, speaking for all the bench players. “But we are here for the team. The team comes first and then we kind of put ourselves second.”
So she trains at the highest level while juggling all the challenges of trying to raise a growing, active boy – in this case while in another country with a very high-pressure, high-demand job. Maybe her toughest task, she said, is making sure Jeremiah understands why she has other priorities right now.
This is kind of a big deal.
“We are kind of separated throughout the World Cup and then we come together and then we are separated again,” McDonald said. “So that can be an emotional roller-coaster for him … just convincing him, ‘Hey, buddy I’ve got to go to soccer practice right now.’ And, ‘Mommy has to take care of business.’ So that kind of calms him down.”
There is only one game left now, though. One game to glory. For Jessica McDonald, just being here once seemed impossible and being here as a mother in her 30s even more remote than that.
Yet there she is. Playing for her country. Playing for her son.
“I think it is a really cool accomplishment,” McDonald said. “Especially being a mom.”
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