Former Tar Heel McDonald balances World Cup, 7-year-old son

The North Carolina Courage player, former Tar Heel and mother is playing in her first Women’s World Cup at age 31

Jessica McDonald, left, runs after the ball during the Women's World Cup match between United States and Chile on June 16 in Paris. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP Photo)

PARIS — Jessica McDonald quickly was put in her place by Jeremiah, her 7-year-old son.

“I tried to explain to him: ‘Buddy, we’re going to the World Cup,’” the American forward remembered. “And he’s just like: ‘OK, can I have a toy now?’”

A 31-year-old forward, McDonald made her World Cup debut at the start of the second half against Chile on June 16, a pinnacle on a circuitous, protracted path to soccer’s highest level. She sparked the offense and her curling shot hit a post in the 62nd minute.

A big part of the joy for McDonald is that Jeremiah is headed to the World Cup to watch the latter stages. The defending champion Americans play France on Friday with a chance to advance to the semifinals.

“He doesn’t fully understand, but at least he’s at an age right now where he’s actually going to remember this,” she said. “He’s going to look back and be like, ‘Wow, I was there. Wow, my mom actually is cool — like she said.’”

Just a few of the 552 players in the Women’s World Cup are mothers, a group that also includes Argentina goalkeeper Vanina Correa, Jamaica forward Cheyna Matthews, Brazil defender Tamires and South Korea defender Hwang Bo-Ram.

American teammates, stressed to the supreme solely by soccer, are amazed by McDonald’s scheduling skills as a single mom.

“I don’t know how she does it,” midfielder Morgan Brian said. “It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it and know how much we sacrifice and we put into this team and how much effort off the field that we have to give, and to know that her time is limited off the field and recovering and doing all the things that she needs to do. It’s pretty impressive that she’s here at this level.”

A role player on a squad of stars, McDonald was a two-time NCAA champion at North Carolina and currently plays for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League. Her brother, 33-year-old Brandon, was a defender in Major League Soccer from 2008-13.

She was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft of the old Women’s Professional Soccer League. But her career was interrupted when, in her first professional start for Chicago, she tore the patellar tendon in her left knee at Washington on Aug. 19, 2010. She didn’t return to the field until Oct. 27, 2012, with the Melbourne Victory in Australia.

McDonald’s national team debut was delayed until 2016, when she was 28 years old. She has made just eight international appearances, scoring in exhibitions against Portugal last November and Belgium in April, and has become known for her long, Rory Delap-like throw-ins.

She was at a doctor’s office last month having the yearly knee checkup when U.S. coach Jill Ellis called.

“My heart’s pounding at that point pretty hard, and so she’s like, ‘You want your answer?’ I’m like, ‘Yes,’” McDonald recalled, thinking about Ellis’ magic words: “You’re going to the World Cup.”

“It was just an ugly cry from that point on — and she said a handful of more things. No idea what she said because I was too busy crying, and just like overwhelming joy,” McDonald said. “I’m 31 years old and I’ve been waiting 31 years just for that phone call, just for that answer.”

Women on the U.S. team have taken a leading role in the push for equal pay and set an example of working moms. Joy Fawcett (1995, 1999, 2003), Carla Overbeck (1999), Tina Ellertson (2007), Kate Markgraf (2007), Christie Pearce (2007, 2011 and 2015), Shannon Boxx (2015) and Amy Rodriguez (2015) were earlier members of the vanguard.

McDonald will have a nanny in France to assist with Jeremiah. The U.S. Soccer Federation has paid for nanny costs on the road since Fawcett and Overbeck reached deals in 1998.

Still, there are child-care costs when McDonald is with her club. She is among seven moms in the NWSL, joined by Portland midfielder Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, Chicago defender Sarah Gorden, Orlando forward Sydney Leroux, Washington forward Cheyna Matthews, Utah’s Rodriguez and Chicago midfielder Michele Vasconcelos.

“There hasn’t been any positive steps for moms in the NWSL,” McDonald said. “Now we’re kind of getting our heads together, getting ideas together, and so now we can start somewhere as moms. … Child care is not cheap. And if you look at our paychecks and you look at child care, there goes our paycheck. How are we going to eat? So yeah, it’s needs to change. We need to do something about it, being helped financially at least.”

Jerimiah has traveled the road with his mom. Since his birth, she has played for Melbourne in Australia plus Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Houston, Western New York and North Carolina. She’s had teammates fill in as babysitters at times when she’s changed clubs and talks about how a neighboring family in North Carolina assists.

“She’s always talking about how early she has to wake up to make sure Jeremiah is taken care of,” left back Crystal Dunn said. “I wake 10 minutes before training and I’m annoyed training gets pushed up earlier and earlier sometimes. But her ability to balance life is just incredible, and I think, hopefully, going forward more women choose her route and not feel like they have to choose their career over having a family. I think the new generation is going to feel like they have the option of doing both.”