Jessica McDonald celebrates at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France.
Minutes before the U.S. women’s soccer team took on South Korea in its final Victory Tour game this past October in Chicago, the game officials went through their usual check of uniforms for both teams’ starters.
Then one of the officials went up went up to U.S. forward Jessica McDonald, who wasn’t in the starting XI.
“She only comes up to me out of all the non-starters,” McDonald recalled, “and she’s like, ‘You don’t have your shin guards on.’”
McDonald replied that she didn’t need her shin guards since she wasn’t starting.
“And she’s just like giving me a hard time,” said McDonald, one of five Black players on the U.S. team that had just won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. I put them on just to save an argument. It wasn’t worth it. I just shook my head because she didn’t check anybody else.”
McDonald’s good friend Morgan Brian later asked about the incident.
“She’s like, ‘Why did she do that?’ said McDonald. “And I’m like, ‘Dude...it still exists’ Andshe was like, ‘I can’t believe I just witnessed that.”
It might sound like a small or trivial matter to some observers, but to McDonald, it was another form of racism she has endured in her 32 years on this planet.
“Little things like that are still happening,” said McDonald, speaking to TeamUSA.org from Utah, where her North Carolina Courage is taking part in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup. “It’s something that we learned as young black people. My grandmother instilled it in me, to be prepared for moments like that. It’s going to happen. It’s just one of those moments you just turn the other cheek and don’t try and be bothered by any of it. It’s time for that to just come to a stop.”
With the country in the midst of a national conversation about racism ignited by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police, McDonald has joined a growing number of athletes in sharing her experiences as a person in color in the sports world.
The Phoenix native and University of North Carolina alum is hopeful the pain experienced by so many this summer will help lead to meaningful changes.
“As an African American, that video wasn’t surprising,” McDonald said. “This is something that’s been obviously been going on for centuries. That’s something that we obviously as Black people been very much so aware about, something that we have been fighting for our entire lives.
“With that being said, seeing how this nation, and not just this nation — people are protesting everywhere,” said McDonald. “Now it’s a very beautiful thing to see because it’s a lot more eye opening to everybody. I think it’s the pandemic that opened people’s eyes a little bit because everyone’s at home now or (more) often than normal. It’s just a beautiful thing to see the support that we get because it’s just not Black people fighting for Black people. It’s everybody fighting now. This is the first time in history where all 50 states had protested for Black lives.”
“I feel like we’re on a rise, that we’re actually going to get somewhere because this is the first time that I felt very hopeful for it,” said McDonald. “I am just hoping and praying that it just continues, and the momentum just continues to grow.”
McDonald and the NWSL have played a key role in this discussion. The league was the first U.S. pro team sport to return following the COVID-19 lockdowns, and ahead of the first Challenge Cup game on June 27, players from the Courage and Portland Thorns wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups and kneeled during the national anthem and a moment of silence.
A joint press release from the teams explained: “We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America.”
“It was huge moment for me just to see my teammates and friends from other teams kneeling during the national anthem,” said McDonald, who hasn’t yet played in the tournament due to an injury. “Colin Kaepernick (the former NFL quarterback) started this kneeling movement. Now our nation is starting to realize its purpose. I feel like we’re going to continue to grow and continue to fight the good fight.”
The events of recent weeks have served as a stark contrast to what McDonald and her teammates were doing one year ago.
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the U.S. capturing the 2019 Women’s World Cup title in a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in Lyon, France.
“It was huge. It was a dream come true,” McDonald said. “It’s hard for me to put into words. Obviously, I’m just grateful to be a part of something historical.”
McDonald’s most memorable moment? Easy — when her son, Jeremiah, now 8, joined with the on the field celebrations. She said that “was just the cherry on top, of course.”
“For him to just to be there to witness it and be a part of it, that’s the most important part of it for me,” she said.
Jeremiah McDonald has watched his mother celebrate many wins and a FIFA World Cup title.
These days, McDonald is focused on helping the two-time defending league champion Courage win the Challenge Cup, a one-off tournament being held in Utah due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Carolina remains the lone undefeated team in the preliminary round following Sunday’s 1-0 triumph over the Chicago Red Stars in a rematch of the 2019 championship encounter. The Courage, who wrap up preliminary round play on July 13 against Sky Blue FC, are the clear favorites to claim the title on July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
But winning the Challenge Cup isn’t necessarily the end-all for North Carolina.
“I don't think it’s really our main focus right now,” McDonald said. “Obviously, we want to win, of course, deep down, but at the end of the day, the only thing we want to do is to get better. We want to get better as individuals and also as a team and the only way to do that is to continue to work hard and work on our weaknesses, perfect our strengths and just continue to work hard for each. That’s what kind helps us enjoy the game a little bit more, take a lot less pressure off of us, just focus on us and the things that we need to improve in and day out.”
Regardless, the Courage has been a difficult team to beat, whether the foes have come from the NWSL or overseas. The team is loaded with USWNT players, up-and-coming players and likely future U.S. women players and foreign internationals. North Carolina also has a savvy and veteran coach in Paul Riley, who knows which players will fit into his system and rise to the occasion and sometimes beyond it.
“I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that we would be very successful at challenging national teams,” she said. “I truly do. It would be a very good challenge, that’s for sure."
“I mean, we’ve got some true talent on this team, but it comes from Paul Riley, being able to piece together all of these different talents that we have on this team because five years ago we’re a bunch of nobodies,” said McDonald. “But here comes Paul Riley turning us into something, especially with him as head coach. With his grit and his passion for the game would help us continue to be successful no matter what team we’re playing against.”
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.