No matter what Jessica McDonald does at the World Cup, she will keep the prize of having the U.S. team’s best story of making it there.
The Phoenix native is debuting in the spotlight at age 31, as the squad’s only mother and one of its defining voices for black women. McDonald was raised by a single mother who battled drug addiction while her father was in and out of prison. She grew into the world’s game in high school, and when her brother Brandon became a pro in MLS, she followed his path to a better life.
“Just to be playing on the world stage and repping all the parents out there, [and] all the African-American girls who feel as if they don’t have much to rely on, to obviously make their dreams come true whatever the circumstances may be, I’m just hoping that this inspires them,” McDonald said.
While it’s nothing new for the U.S. team to have black women in its ranks, it isn’t exactly common, either. So it matters that McDonald is one of five black players on this squad, along with goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, defender Crystal Dunn, and forwards Christen Press and Mallory Pugh.
“That’s an incredible group of black women on the team,” McDonald said. “Hopefully, that inspires more of the African-American community, just to show them that these things are possible.”
More than most players on the roster, McDonald is a product of sustained growth in the NWSL. She vaulted to prominence last year by recording 10 goals and 8 assists for the North Carolina Courage, including two in the championship game.
“A huge success story — what a great human being and a great teammate,” said Courage winger Heather O’Reilly, who will work this summer as one of Fox’s World Cup studio analysts. “She always has a wonderful energy that she brings to practice, and has just bagged goals in the league. ... She has a lot on her plate, but she does it with grace and she does it with enthusiasm and positivity that helps every team that she’s on.”
McDonald’s club success led to her first national team call-up in a year and a half. She made an impression by scoring last November at Portugal and in April against Belgium.
“She’s got a nose for the goal. She’s fantastic in the air. She has a long throw-in,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said when she announced the World Cup roster. “Seeing her in those big games last year also made me recognize and acknowledge that in big games, this player shows up.”
A few weeks after the Belgium game, McDonald got the phone call of a lifetime.
“I was taking a deep breath and [Ellis] was like, ‘You’re going to the World Cup,’ and let me tell you guys, it was just an ugly cry from that point on,” McDonald said. “She said a handful more things. No idea what she said because I was too busy crying and just overwhelmed with joy.”
McDonald’s son, Jeremiah, is seven now, just old enough to know that he’s going on an epic summer vacation.
“He’s got his jersey ready and all. He’s got his passport stamped,” she said. “He’s at an age right now where he’s actually going to remember this. He’s going to look back and be like, ‘Wow, my mom actually is cool, like she said.’ ... He does know that Mommy’s playing in the World Cup. He doesn’t know what the World Cup really is, but he will understand one day.”
Unfortunately, Jeremiah might not get to see his mom play much. She is the last forward on the roster, and was one of just two outfield players to not get any game time in the U.S.' three World Cup warmup games. But she is ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“[If] it’s that game-changing moment in the last 10 minutes when we need a goal and it’s tied 0-0, I’m willing to take on that role,” she said. “Or if we need a heading presence, I’m there. ... Whatever she throws me at, that’s what I’m going to be doing.”