At 24, Denise O’Sullivan is already a veteran of the Irish senior women’s football team with over 60 caps. At club level, the Cork native’s big break came in 2013 when she signed for Glasgow City.
Three years later, she headed for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the US.
O’Sullivan joined the Houston Dash before moving to the North Carolina Courage in mid-2017. Voted the team’s Most Valuable Player this season, O’Sullivan was inspirational as the Courage beat Portland Thorns to win the NWSL championship last month.
Q: After a good start, things didn’t go according to plan in Houston. You weren’t happy. You were frozen out. And now – just over a year later – you’re a champion. Have you had a chance to reflect?
A: I’ll never forget this year. It’s definitely been the biggest highlight of my career. Just from my perspective, to go from everything that happened at the Dash to the season we’ve had here — winning the ICC tournament in the summer against Lyon, winning the NWSL Shield for finishing first in the league and then topping everything off by winning the championship. The best thing ever was getting picked up by this team.
Q: When you asked to leave the Dash, the original plan was that you were going to head to Germany. But then you got a call from North Carolina Courage. What was that period like for you?
A: It was a bit of a scary week, to be honest — just saying that I was going to Germany but not really knowing where I’d end up. Deep down, I wanted to stay in America. But with things not working out in Houston, I wanted to see what doors would open up for me back in Europe. And that’s when Paul Riley – our coach at the Courage – called me. And he said, ‘We want you here and you’ll get game time’. And he stuck by his word. It all worked out for the best and I’ve been improving so much as a player. I came into a team full of professionals. They just want to show up and work.
Q: Paul Riley has been a big supporter of yours. Recently he referred to you as one of the best midfielders in the world. How does that make you feel?
A: That’s quite a statement! I think Paul believes in me enough to think that. He’s been talking about all the work I’ve put in but I have to give him a lot of credit too. He’s changed my career by giving me another chance in this league and bringing me into the team and putting me into positions where he knows I can express myself.
Q: You’ve been playing a new role this season and sitting much deeper in midfield. Has that been a challenge?
A: A new role is always hard to get used to but Paul dropped me in there as a 6 and thought I could do a job. I’ve enjoyed it and I can start the buildup. One thing he praised me for was getting the ball from the defenders. He’d say that the intensity of the buildup was good when I was on the ball so I got used to it pretty quickly. The defensive part of my game has improved a lot and my physical presence has massively improved since I came here last summer.
Q: You hadn’t scored all season and in the final against Portland, with the score at 1-0, you had a great chance. What happened?
A: We play a four in midfield – two 6s and two 10s - and work on rotating positions. So, when our number 10, Debinha, got on the ball, I saw the space ahead of her and I just moved up – a vertical rotation – and it worked well. I had the whole right channel in front of me. But, I kicked the air first! I mis-kicked it and then went again. I thought I was going to score but their goalkeeper made the save.
Q: With 25 minutes left, you were already 3-0 up. Was it difficult to keep calm?
A: I was getting excited in the 80th minute, like! In a final and having such a lead, I was just thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness – we’re going to win the championship’. You can get lax but I felt we were very focused. We didn’t want to concede at all and I think we managed the game very well. We brought them to the corners towards the end and, obviously, we had Jess Mac (Jessica McDonald, who scored twice) up top and she was just unbelievable. She was holding the ball up, still getting shots off and almost scoring in the 85th minute. They had a few chances but that was bound to happen. We kept our discipline and our shape and saw the game out. We were in control and it was a dominant performance.
Q: Your family must have been worried about you when things weren’t going well in the US, particularly with you being so far away. What was their reaction like to the victory?
A: They know what I went through in Houston and they’ve seen the hard work I’ve put in. They’re really proud and know it’s what I wanted. So they’re very happy.
Q: Your father John passed away in 2016, shortly before you headed to Houston. Was he in your thoughts during the post-game celebrations?
A: Oh, absolutely. He would’ve been so happy with me. Just before he passed away, I was signing the contract with the Dash. When everything was happening with him, my move to the US was being sorted out. And to think that a year-and-a-half later I’ve won a championship...He’d be over the moon.
Q: The one thing missing from checklist is playing at a major international tournament. What do you think the immediate future holds for the Irish team?
A: Our dreams were dashed this year but I fully believe we’ll make a major tournament with the squad we have. We’ve improved so much and we’ve a young team and a lot of players coming up and gelling with the squad and doing really well. So, fingers crossed, we’ll make a Euros or World Cup in the next few years.
North Carolina Courage reached the NWSL decider in 2017 too, thanks to O’Sullivan’s 89th-minute winner against Chicago Red Stars in the semi-finals. It remains her only goal for the Courage, though she did manage two during her time with Houston Dash in 2016.