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Teen Plays Like a Dream With U.S. Soccer Team

At 18, Heather O'Reilly, from East Brunswick, N.J., is youngest player on a squad that is preparing to defend its World Cup title.

May 11, 2003|Stefan Bondy | Associated Press

A day after arriving in Washington to train for the U.S. soccer team's exhibition game, Heather O'Reilly was contemplating a shopping trip for the ultimate teenage purchase.

"I might go look for a prom dress," said O'Reilly, a senior at East Brunswick (N.J.) High.

At 18, O'Reilly has such teenage things on her mind. She is the youngest and only high school member of a veteran national team preparing to defend its World Cup title this fall.

Her play has been limited -- she has been a reserve in her 17 games with the U.S. team. But her boundless energy and intense pace have impressed the woman who will decide whether to keep O'Reilly on the World Cup roster.

"She has amazing quickness," Coach April Heinrichs said. "She's a nightmare to any defense."

Whether or not O'Reilly makes an impact in the upcoming World Cup, she appears destined to become an enduring piece of future American attacking lines.

As the brilliant careers of Mia Hamm, 31, and Tiffeny Millbrett, 30, wind down, O'Reilly is likely to share time up front with the likes of Shannon MacMillan, 28, and Cindy Parlow, 25. And then with other players closer to her own age.

O'Reilly made headlines in high school for East Brunswick, scoring 136 goals in four seasons and earning national player of the year honors in 2002. Playing for the U.S. Under-19 squad, she finished second in scoring last year with 21 goals and 13 assists in 18 games.

She has is committed to perennial powerhouse North Carolina, the same school that was home to U.S. stars Hamm, Parlow and Kristine Lilly.

O'Reilly is fleet, enthusiastic and, best of all, improving. In only her third match with the national team last October, as a 17-year-old, O'Reilly scored a goal and had an assist to break open a match against Italy at the U.S. Women's Cup.

Since then, she scored once more for the national team while still adjusting to the high level of competition by using her uncanny sense of open space and well-timed runs on through balls.

"She's a spark plug, buzzing all over the field breaking tackles," said MacMillan, the U.S. team's current leading scorer, who had four goals in a 6-1 victory over Canada on April 26. "She's been great for us."

O'Reilly's taste in music (Eminem and Justin Timberlake) might be different than her older teammates, but she shares the same sense for the goal. Still, there are moments when her older teammates decide to teach O'Reilly a lesson or two.

During a warmup before the game against Canada, O'Reilly was matched against her idol, Hamm, in a one-on-one drill. O'Reilly deftly slipped the ball between Hamm's legs for a breakaway. Seconds later, it was Hamm's turn and she got her vengeance. O'Reilly tried for the steal by bumping Hamm off the ball, but got caught flat-footed and fell backward, earning Hamm the revenge breakaway.

Off the field, O'Reilly, very much a high school senior, maintains contact with her friends in East Brunswick, who supply her with all the essential gossip. It's important to know who broke up with whom, even when you're playing 3,000 miles away at the Algarve Cup in Portugal.

"My mom misses me, and she gets upset when I can't show up for the holidays," said O'Reilly, who was away during Easter while playing in San Diego. "But I feel truly blessed."

Although soccer takes O'Reilly from her home and school for extended periods -- commitments to the U-19 and national teams in the last year brought her to Germany, Sweden and Portugal -- she's managed at least a 3.7 GPA to qualify for the National Honors Society.

Meanwhile, O'Reilly is trying not to take comparisons to her soccer heroines too seriously. Even playing alongside them, she feels their accomplishments can never be duplicated.

"I'm not looking to be the next Mia Hamm," she said. "I want to be the first Heather O'Reilly. I still have an 18-year-old mentality. I don't want to grow up too fast."

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