The girl with steady feet had shaky hands. She dialed the phone
number, then waited for an answer.
"I just got a date to the prom!" squealed Heather O'Reilly, an
East Brunswick (N.J.) High senior, a short time later, recounting
the call. "That's the big thing right now."
Correction: She's the big thing. At 18 O'Reilly is the youngest
member of the U.S. women's soccer team, which will defend its
World Cup title this September in China. Within 24 hours of
landing the prom date, O'Reilly, a 5'4" forward, scored the
clinching goal in a 3--1 win over archrival Norway last Thursday
at the Four Nations tournament in China. (The event, running
through Wednesday, involves the host country, Germany, Norway and
But on a squad of mothers, O'Reilly is still a daughter. "She's
funny, she's naive, she's cute," says coach April Heinrichs. On
the bus trip from Shanghai to Yiwu, site of the Norway win, the
veterans talked dresses and dates with their young charge.
Seven-year national team member Cindy Parlow, 24, who missed her
prom to play in a match, told O'Reilly, "I'm living through you."
More and more, the U.S. will be looking to her. In Sunday's 2--0
loss to China, O'Reilly came on in the second half and was a
constant threat to score. Comparing her on-field development with
that of her celebrated teammates, Heinrichs says, "She's more
technical and more tactical [than they were] at 18. She has a
one-versus-one personality but the ability to get others
involved. Her self-esteem is shockingly ahead of her peers'."
But in many ways she's just another Jersey girl. "Sometimes I
forget she's a prodigy," says Kayleigh Russo, Heather's best
friend. Recently the two were sharing a sundae at Ruby Tuesday's
when Kayleigh noticed a group of guys a few tables over. Glances
were exchanged, and one of the boys walked up to the pair. He
pulled out a scrap of paper. "Could I have your autograph?" he
asked Heather. "My little sister is a big soccer player." Heather
signed. Then he gave her a blank napkin. "Now this one's for me."
O'Reilly has a poodle pup named Sugar, an MP3 player for her
Eminem downloads and a sense of humor about her new fame: Four
years ago she was worrying that she wouldn't make high school
varsity. "It's ironic when cute boys come up to me and it's not
to talk or to hang out," O'Reilly says.
Maybe it's her play that leaves them speechless. O'Reilly scored
136 goals in four seasons for East Brunswick and was a three-time
All-America. She had 21 goals and 13 assists in 18 games with the
U.S. under-19 team that won the world championship last summer.
Last March, at age 17, she debuted with the full national team at
the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
Heather was a toddler dribbling on the sideline at one of her
three older brothers' soccer games when a coach stopped parents
Andrew and Carol and said, "She's really going to do something
someday." That someday is now. Her ball handling draws
comparisons to that of Mia Hamm, international soccer's alltime
leading scorer, and her speed is likened to that of Tiffeny
Milbrett, the third-highest scorer in U.S. women's history.
O'Reilly is quick to rebuff the comparisons. "I want to be my own
player," says O'Reilly, who'll play college ball for powerhouse
North Carolina next year. "What they did will never be done
O'Reilly gives her elders respect and receives their admiration
in return, though the veterans aren't above having a little fun
at her expense. In Portugal last March, O'Reilly was late to a
team breakfast. When the players hit the field, Heinrichs lined
them up for sprints. She blew the whistle, and O'Reilly, who's
been timed at under five seconds for the 40, took off--too fast
to notice that her teammates had stopped running after two or
three yards. When O'Reilly jogged back, Heinrichs put her arm
around her and asked, "Do you know why they did that?"
"Because I was late," O'Reilly said.
"And because they like you," the coach said.
"When I looked out of the corner of my eye and didn't see anyone
else," Heinrichs recalls O'Reilly saying, "I thought, Holy cow,
She has no idea how far ahead she really is.
COLOR PHOTO: DENIS POROY/AP (O'REILLY) LIFE OF O'REILLY Just 18 but remarkably skilled, Heather (9) has already made 11 appearances with the national team.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Mia Hamm
Early to Rise
Heather O'Reilly isn't the first U.S. player to make a splash at
a young age. Here are five national team stalwarts who debuted
before they were 18 and have made at least 100 international
Player, Pos. Debut Age Caps*
Lorrie Fair, D Feb. 4, 1996 17 109
Julie Foudy, M July 29, 1988 17 219
Mia Hamm, F Aug. 3, 1987 15 227
Kristine Lilly, F Aug. 3, 1987 16 243
Cindy Parlow, F Jan. 14, 1996 17 117