“A Different Type of Striker”
Some major changes have shaken up Racing Louisville’s roster these past few weeks. After a series of waivers, drafts, and trades, Racing will be fielding a very different team in 2022.
Of these changes, the biggest surprise was acquiring forward Jessica McDonald from the North Carolina Courage. To obtain McDonald, Racing traded co-captain Savannah McCaskill to Los Angeles’ Angel City FC in exchange for the sixth pick in the college draft and $25,000 in allocation money. The sixth pick was then flipped to North Carolina in exchange for McDonald. As a result, Racing ended up with a star forward and a boost of allocation money to boot.
As hard as it is to lose a gifted player and team leader like McCaskill, the value McDonald brings to Louisville is unquestionable. In addition to being a member of the 2019 World Cup-winning U.S. National Team squad, McDonald has also had a stellar career in the NWSL. She is the league’s all-time assist leader with 27 and in fourth-place for goals scored with 51. She was instrumental in the Courage winning three shields and two championships, including being named Most Valuable Player of the 2018 Championship Match. McDonald also won a national championship with the Western NY Flash prior to their move to North Carolina to become the Courage. Between her success at both a national and international level, McDonald is now easily the most accomplished player on Racing’s roster.
As big as these stats are, there are other nuances that make her a special fit for Racing. At nearly six feet, she’s the second tallest on the roster after goalkeeper Katie Lund. This height helps provide an aerial presence in front of goal that Racing has been desperately lacking. Louisville has only scored off of a header once and never converted a corner. Meanwhile, two of McDonald’s four goals last season were headers. She also won 57% of all aerial duels last season.
“I feel like I’m a different type of striker than most,” said McDonald when we spoke a couple of days before Christmas. “Just my heading presence and speed. Being able to feed other girls the ball. I do love assisting. That’s probably my favorite thing about soccer really is being able to set other people up. “
The other major factors McDonald brings are leadership and a winning mentality. The 33-year old McDonald has played professionally since 2010. Racing will be her record seventh NWSL team. In her decade-long career as a professional player, she knows what it takes to win at all levels and is eager to share what she’s learned with the younger generation. Signing a player with this combination of experience and mindset is a boon for Racing who will field a very young team in 2022. Last season, Racing was primarily composed of rookies and second-year players. In 2022, a good deal of turnover means Racing will be relying on even more rookies as key draftees like Jaelin Howell and Kirsten Davis join the roster.
In our conversation, McDonald discussed what attracted her to Louisville, what she thinks she can bring to the team, and what Racing offers her that other clubs couldn’t. We also discussed where she feels the league is headed after a tumultuous 2021 season and what fans can do to support the players in their fight for change.
It’s clear in every comment that McDonald is a veteran who has seen almost all there is to see in women’s soccer and yet she remains as dedicated and passionate about moving the sport, her team, and her career forward as ever. To pull such a strong, settled, veteran presence from a successful team like the Courage after five years is a major coup for Racing, but it ends up Racing didn’t have to court McDonald at all. Instead, it was she who initiated conversations about moving here.
After visiting Louisville last season, McDonald said she “vibed” with the city. The landscape, the size, and surroundings added up to a place where she could feel at home.
“First and foremost, it’s the family environment that they’ve got going on out there and I like the city and the area as a whole,” she said. “I told my agent literally the only two teams I would play for in this league are Louisville or North Carolina Courage because of where both markets are.”
McDonald had never spent time in Louisville prior to traveling for matches last season. What she saw in her downtime impressed her.
“I had gone on a walk on my own when I traveled with the Courage to Louisville and it was just an incredible time,” recalled McDonald. “I put it on my [Instagram] story and I was like this is absolutely amazing! This is so peaceful. I remember I was down by the water and I was just watching these kids skateboard and I was like, wow, this is my kind of thing, you know? My kind of space. “
Beyond the comfort of the city itself, McDonald also appreciated Racing’s setup as a club. She’d had the chance to tour the facilities and see the team in action last season and it all impressed her. Lynn Family Stadium, in particular, was a selling point.
“Oh yeah, the stadium is so cool,” she enthused. “Anyone can tell you that from the outside.”
She recalled chatting with friends during training a few days prior. Her friends brought up the stadium and remarked how great it was that she’d soon be calling it home.
“They were like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re playing at such a sick stadium.’ I’m like ‘Yes, and I’m super pumped!'” she said with a strong laugh.
In addition to the much-lauded facilities, McDonald is also enthusiastic about some benefits offered by Racing that she’s never received elsewhere in her professional career. Benefits like being fed before and after practice.
“There’s a cafeteria!” exclaimed McDonald. “There’s breakfast and lunch! You know how much money I’m about to save this season? Because there’s really breakfast and lunch served to me. What?! I’ve never had that ever!”
National team players get fed regularly at camps, but in the NWSL providing regular food for players is almost unheard of. And as small as this may seem, it means a great deal to players. Especially, when most are paid notoriously small salaries.
“Oh my gosh, yeah, just something as simple as a meal, you know?” said McDonald. “I mean, feeding your athletes! I think that’s so cool and it’s at the facility to top it off. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to drive 30 minutes to go and get food or anything like that. So the convenience of everything just being there, it’s amazing. The whole setup is just it’s there and that’s it. And that is relaxing on the mind, body, and spirit, at least for me.”
McDonald will come to Louisville with her nine-year-old son Jeremiah. Leaving the strong support network she had in North Carolina wasn’t an easy decision, but she feels confident a fresh start in a new environment will be good for both of them. Right now, she’s focused on making sure Jeremiah has everything he needs to get situated. She said the club has been “really cool about helping me with everything” relating to schools and housing, but there’s still work to be done.
“I’m excited. My kid’s excited, too,” said McDonald. “He’s excited for the move and making new friends.”
Hitting the Reset Button
As exciting as the move and the promise of a fresh start might be, McDonald is fully aware of the challenges that will face her on her new team. While the Courage was technically an expansion team in 2017, the whole roster was essentially just the Western New York Flash transplanted from Buffalo, NY to Cary, NC. Playing with the same squad for years yields chemistry and understanding that allows players to truly work as a unit.
“You can blindfold me and if I received the ball I could tell you exactly where Debinha is going to be. Or Lynn Williams,” said McDonald to explain the rapport that had been established between Courage players. “It was quite amazing to obviously know your teammates on and off the field [to that degree].”
However, building chemistry like this is a long process and not something that can be easily replicated on a new team, as McDonald is very aware.
“This is going to be a growing and challenging process with Racing because obviously a lot of us are going to be new. They’re not going to know how I am as a player and vice versa. And so I think the most challenging part is, okay, what kind of ball does Jaelin Howell like when I’m in this pocket of space? Where is she going to be? OK, maybe I need to take a little bit less off of this pass. Maybe this is how she likes it. So literally the littlest, tiniest things go a long way with a team knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And I think that’s also the most challenging part about sports, really. Just being able to grow as a team. And once we’re able to get all of our strengths together, I think that’s when everything will fall into place for this organization.”
On top of everything else, Racing also has a new coach, Kim Björkegren, who will be joining the team in January once his work visa is sorted. While this unfamiliarity might be a bit daunting, McDonald sees the opportunity that comes with change.
“It’s going to be really cool to start over because essentially that’s what we’re doing in this organization. We’re hitting a reset button here and I’m excited. I’m excited to start from the ground and move on up.”
If chemistry requires time to develop, it also needs to be worked on deliberately in order to be built properly. How does a young team accomplish this? Especially one amidst a reset? The veteran forward says preseason and especially the Challenge Cup tournament that takes place in the month before the start of the regular season will be key.
“I think Challenge Cup will really help with that whole process. Preseason is just a fight. You’re scrambling. This is boot camp. That’s essentially what preseason is. So you don’t really know the players’ strengths and weaknesses. You’re just trying to hold on for dear life and just survive, really.”
Games will lead to consistency which will lead to finding what works and what doesn’t. And McDonald actually has a pretty unique perspective on what has worked and what hasn’t for Racing thus far: She’s the only opponent to become a player in team history. Therefore, she’s the only one who knows what it’s like to play against Racing before playing for them.
As for the team’s greatest strength and biggest weakness, McDonald said they’re actually one and the same: This is a really young team. Strength-wise, they have a lot of energy and a lot of fight in them which can help wear down opponents. McDonald recalled a particular incident with a former Courage teammate who was brought onto Racing in last year’s expansion draft. “I was talking trash to Lo Milliet in the middle of a game one day. I was like, ‘Could you just stop running?” She laughed wryly. “Just stop, you know?’’
While a young team may be full of youthful energy, they also lack the practical experience that comes with time spent as a professional. The leap from college to the pros is a big one that even top players have found harder than expected.
“They had a lot of rookies and a lot of first-years come into the group and so I think experience will go a long way for this team,” said McDonald. “Hopefully, I can bring a little bit of that.”
And once the time is put in and experience and consistency are gained, the results on the field can be magical.
“Just being able to mesh well, that’s one of the most amazing things about soccer. Once you see the flow just going right with the club or players, that’s what makes the game so beautiful.”
She continued: “I’m excited to see how this team, this organization as a whole is going to sprout. And I just see nothing but positive things because it doesn’t get any worse than 2021 at this point for everybody. And so I feel like everybody is just kind of hitting the reset button a little bit as a whole in this league. And I feel with the positivity, transitioning from now until 2022, it’s gonna be really cool to witness and also be a part of it.”
“We’ve All Had Enough”
To call 2021 a hard year for NWSL players is an understatement. The league was wracked with scandals – most involving abuse and misconduct by coaches. As a result, five of 10 head coaches were fired or forced to resign during 2021, including the Courage’s Paul Riley and Racing’s Christy Holly. These experiences have been traumatic for players. In their aftermath, do they feel meaningful change is taking place?
“Oh yeah, 100%,” replied McDonald firmly. “I feel like our platforms – everybody’s platforms, with all athletics, not even just women’s soccer – we all just found our voices recently and we’ve all had enough. Anything that we deserve we’re going to be fighting for because at this point we deserve it.
“It’s really cool to see the changes that NWSL has made, even though we’ve had to knock on some doors a bunch of times in order for change to be created. But I feel like transitioning into 2022, this fight that we’re going to continue to have is slowly but surely progressing. It really is and I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to witness as a player who’s been here since day one. I’ve seen it all, and just seeing the changes that have been made and will continue to get made is amazing.”
The key to much of this change, according to McDonald, is the fact players are finally being listened to. Players have platforms thanks to social media that they didn’t have five or 10 years ago. They’re able to tell their stories and speak directly to the public. And, increasingly, their stories are being picked up by major outlets and their voices are finally being heard.
“The only way to go is up at this point, so I don’t think it could really get any worse than what has already happened. It’s just nice to be able to speak up on behalf of everybody within the NWSL and just fight for change, really. And carry that over into the future.”
As far as what fans can do to support players in their calls for change, McDonald said they should keep amplifying players’ voices and causes wherever they are. In particular, she’s heartened by how fans across the league are taking part in calling for change for all teams, not just their home club. For example, if something happens in one team, knowing supporters groups across the entire league will fly banners in solidarity with those players sends a powerful message that everyone appreciates.
“I feel like you guys have already hit it right on the nail and are continuing to do so,” said McDonald of fan action in 2021. “Just seeing the support that we have gotten in this league has been absolutely out of this world.”
Although fans who feel disheartened by the recent scandals have questioned whether to keep buying tickets or otherwise contribute monetarily to clubs, McDonald said that type of support is also still incredibly important to players.
“Support from you guys needs to continue because we need it. We need y’all to buy season tickets. How do you think we make our money?
“I think the support from the fans have been absolutely fantastic and I think to continue that support [fans should] continue to talk about issues. Continue to use your voices as well, because we can’t just use ours. We need backup…Come to our games but also speak on issues as well and don’t stop until you get what you want.”
In addition to her career as a professional player, McDonald is also a co-founder of the group Soccer Resilience. On their webpage, the group states that their mission is to “train the most underutilized, competitive edge in sports: the mind.”
“The title speaks for itself,” said McDonald of the organization. “We give [players] the tools to be able to rewire their brains and, what I mean by that is, how do you cope with making a mistake?
“Let’s say for example I have a wide-open shot in the middle of the six-yard box and I miss in a game. Crap, you know immediately there’s a negative thought. What can I do to change that negative thought into something positive? Move on and keep it going? Because we’re in the middle of a game. I can’t be in my head anymore because it’s so easy to keep that negative mindset.”
In addition to McDonald, Soccer Resilience’s founders include Matt Spear, former head coach of Davidson College’s men’s team, Dr. Brad Miller, a clinical psychologist based out of San Diego, and Wells Thompson, a retired MLS player. The organization also has over a dozen ambassadors made up of current players across the men’s and women’s game. Ultimately, the group’s goal is to work with players and coaches, and sometimes parents to increase the psychological well-being of young soccer players while teaching them to handle adversity both on and off the field. They also offer trainings at the club level to help develop a healthy team culture.
Between working with Soccer Resilience and the enthusiasm she still shows for playing professionally, I asked McDonald how she remains so driven after such a long, successful career. She’s won almost everything there is to win and she’s broken a few records doing it. What keeps her so motivated to strive for more? To challenge herself to help build a new team instead of staying in the comfort of her home in North Carolina? Her answer was simple.
“My kid,” she said with a proud smile. “It’s really my kid because he keeps me on my toes. He keeps me going and all parents can vouch for me on this one. It is just such a precious feeling and precious thing to watch your child grow as a human being. Seeing their personality, their likes or dislikes, how diehard they are about something.”
She describes a time when Jeremiah was all about Legos. He’d spend all day happily building complex structures out of 1,000 or more blocks. Later, he challenged himself to solving Rubik’s Cubes. And so, he dedicated himself to practicing until he mastered it. She said the joy he finds in these projects inspires her to apply the same to her career.
“I need to be the same way careerwise, you know what I mean? Because I love what I do for a living. My kid loves his Legos and I need to bring that same happiness that he has about building…and apply this work ethic and continue to do so on the field.
“He brings the joy of soccer into my life because he impresses me so much at home where I need to do the best that I can to…inspire him. I want to inspire him to just be great. Be great at whatever it is he’s going to do in the future. So that’s what keeps me going. That’s what makes me feel young.”
McDonald hopes to feel some of this inspiration – and be a source of inspiration herself – when she joins Racing next season. Having young teammates will be a challenge, but one she’s ready for.
“I’m excited to see the challenge I’m going to have for myself. Like y’all gotta realize I don’t have as much energy as you, but I’m still gonna keep up the best that I can so I’m just excited to see how that’s going to go.”
Needless to say, Racing and all of their fans are looking forward to it, too.
Quotes in this article have been edited lightly for clarity.