Through the ups and downs, the trophies and the losses, and all the in-betweens at the North Carolina Courage, there has been one constant: Denise O’Sullivan. The 29-year-old Irish midfielder has been with the Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League since the club acquired her rights in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, she was named the club’s Most Valuable Player. She was a pivotal part of the team’s three Shields, two NWSL Championships, and one Challenge Cup Championship. Now, in 2023, she is captain of one of the winningest clubs in NWSL history.
“Being granted the captaincy by this team is absolutely amazing. It’s a club I’ve been with now for six years [with] a lot of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” O’Sullivan told AllForXI. “I’ve only been [in the captain’s role] for a few months, and I absolutely love it and wouldn’t want it any other way. I love leading this team. I know I’m the captain but we have so many leaders on this team and they all help me within the role.”
O’Sullivan has already contributed substantially to the team’s 2023 campaign including captaining their season opener and scoring a stoppage time goal to earn a draw in their first Challenge Cup match of the season. Despite many changes at the club, including a number of big player departures, O’Sullivan is confident in the squad and stalwart in the team’s long standing identity.
“There have been lots of changes. It’s more of a younger squad with a good mix of youth and veterans. There is good balance within the team,” she said. “I think our identity and culture always stay the same. We don’t look too far into the season. We take things day by day, show up, work hard, and hold each other accountable.”
In particular, O’Sullivan has been pleased with the direction of the club and sees an organization that is taking significant strides. “The club is doing everything they can this year,” she said. “They’ve been absolutely fantastic to me and the team from day one. It’s a really good feeling.”
Beginning their 2023 NWSL season with a win at home was a huge boost for a club that had some question marks going into the season. For O’Sullivan, winning that first match in front of their home crowd made it even more special.
“The fans have shown up for us no matter what all these years,” she said. “To show up and get three points for them was fantastic.”
Even with the win, O’Sullivan says the team is not letting it distract them from the unpredictable nature of the NWSL. “You can say [winning the first game] sets you up nicely but this league is so up and down, you don’t know what will happen every week,” she said. “It’s extremely hard in this league to win not just one game but then another. You have to put that aside and move on to the next.”
O’Sullivan’s skill and leadership will be called upon for both club and country this year as she also prepares to join the Republic of Ireland Women’s National Football Team for their first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup appearance. O’Sullivan recently returned from camp with the Irish side who took on the U.S. Women’s National team with two friends. Although Ireland lost 2-0 and 1-0, O’Sullivan says the team and coaching staff are taking positive lessons away from the two games against the defending world champions.
“As players, we always want to win. That’s just the competitiveness in us. We were disappointed, but that just shows how much we’ve grown over the years to be disappointed to come up with a loss against the USA,” she said. “We went out and showed what we can bring and do. At times, we really played football. That’s the first time we’ve really done that as a team as well as we did. Overall, I think those two games were beneficial for us. With all the experience the U.S. has to put out a performance like we did was very positive.”
Another positive for O’Sullivan during this camp was earning her 100th cap with the national team, a feat she considers “phenomenal.”
“I didn’t realize how good it would feel until it happened and it always felt surreal,” she said. “As a kid, I always dreamed of playing for my country. I’ve worked extremely hard to do so. Whether one or 100, it’s an absolute honor. To get to 100 is really special, especially with the group we have right now.”
As the squad prepares for the World Cup this summer, O’Sullivan is not thinking too much about their group stage opponents. Having drawn Canada, Nigeria, and Australia, the Irish side finds themselves in one of the toughest groups of the tournament with their opening match against co-hosts Australia on the first day.
“Every team in the World Cup is going to be very, very high quality. We have to prepare for every game the same way. We’ll go in there with confidence,” she said. “Our first game is against Australia, they’re really on form right now, and Sam Kerr is really on form. They’re at home in front of 80,000 fans, so yes, it will be tough no matter what, but we don’t think about it too much. I prepare the same way that I always do, to be as professional as I can, holding myself accountable every day and holding myself to high standards, and I think the team is in the exact same mindset as well.”
Back with her club team, O’Sullivan is keenly aware how the training environment at the Courage and the level of competition in the NWSL prepares her for the international stage.
“The standard in the NWSL is really, really high,” she says. “Playing those games every week keeps me in tip top shape, and it’s so competitive you never know what is going to happen every single week.”
Although the World Cup is always in the back of her mind, when O’Sullivan is with the Courage, she’s 100% focused on giving her all for her club team. “I try to stay as professional as I can to prepare for both club and country,” she says. “Even when I am with the national team I have a responsibility as captain with the Courage. I try to stay in communication with the coaches if there’s anything that arises, and I think it’s important to stay connected with the team.”
Once O’Sullivan lands in Australia, it will be full focus on the national team and doing everything she can in their efforts to win the tournament. “I do have a big responsibility and a big role to play on the team,” O’Sullivan said. “I will support the team in any way I can, give everything for my country and hopefully do them proud.”