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More than a decade ago, Jessica McDonald couldn’t have imagined there would be a day to honor her in her hometown Phoenix.

Back then, in July 2006, she was a sought after soccer player without the grades to get into her preferred choice North Carolina. Her post Glendale Cactus High School journey would have to begin at junior college, specifically Phoenix College, where she excelled in not just soccer but basketball and track for two years.

“She was not on my recruiting board at all,” former Phoenix College soccer coach Morgan Lee said during a ceremony at the school to retire McDonald’s jersey and celebrate “Jessica McDonald Day” in Phoenix. “She was in a completely different stratosphere.”

Lee met with McDonald’s grandmother, who largely raised Jess, to get her approval and sign a letter of intent. “She was coming in here with very mixed feelings,” he said.

“Phoenix College wasn’t her first choice, her second choice, her third choice. Frankly, it wasn’t on her radar.” Lee said. “But she knew what her mission was going to be regardless of where she was. She understood what needed to be done to get back to her first choice.”

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The 2006 National Junior College Athletic Association Player of the Year made it to North Carolina, where she played on NCAA championship teams in 2008 and 2009. A nomadic, injury-marred professional career would follow.

She became a single mother in 2012, worked other jobs to supplement her modest soccer income and fought off the urge to retire from the sport.

Finally in 2016 came her chance to play with the U.S. national team, leading to her selection to the 2019 World Cup, in which the U.S. went 7-0 en route to a second consecutive World Cup title.

McDonald only played in one World Cup match but afterwards helped the North Carolina Courage repeat as NWSL champion, scoring a goal in the title game.

“There are no words (for 2019),” McDonald said. “How I try to explain it to the youth is you ask your parents for something you really, really want and to get it, that bubble of excitement and happiness kind of hits you. For me, I times that feeling by a thousand. Obviously, it opened up many doors for me so I’m grateful and blessed just to be here.”

The Phoenix College ceremony isn’t the only Arizona honor for McDonald. She and World Cup teammate Julie Ertz of Mesa will be among five female grand marshals for the Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Parade, representing a theme of women in sports, on Dec. 28.

Then, in January, McDonald, 31, and Ertz, 27, will be among those vying for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team, provided the Americans qualify for Tokyo through a CONCACAF tournament Jan. 28-Feb. 9 in Texas and Carson, Calif.

U.S. women’s soccer forward Jessica McDonald was honored Tuesday at Phoenix College, where she played three sports in 2006-07. She was on the U.S. 2019 World Cup gold medal-winning team.
U.S. women’s soccer forward Jessica McDonald was honored Tuesday at Phoenix College, where she played three sports in 2006-07. She was on the U.S. 2019 World Cup gold medal-winning team. (Photo: Phoenix College)

“It’s nerve wracking because less numbers on the (Olympic) roster,” McDonald said. “It’s going to be true battle that’s for sure,” particularly playing for new U.S. national team coach Vlatko Andonovski. “I don’t think it means as much to me as the World Cup because the World Cup is the biggest stage in the world. Olympics would be cherry on top of course, but I would be very content with winning the World Cup.”

For McDonald, her success should be shared with her home state because of those here who were central to development including those at Sereno Soccer Club, now re-branded as Real Salt Lake Arizona.

“This is such a huge part of my journey,” McDonald said of her days with the Phoenix College Bears. “This is kind of where everything started when you become an adult, you’re 18, out of the house trying to figure your character. Phoenix College helped shape me into the human being and athlete I am.

“It’s a very rare state where you see athletes coming out of junior college and Glendale as well and become as successful as my journey has been.”

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