While getting caught up in the excitement of watching FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer on television, sisters Shannon and Mary Therese McDonnell couldn’t help but imagine one day being in the spotlight themselves.
The Sandburg High School graduates are members of the Republic of Ireland National football team and would relish the opportunity to help Ireland qualify for its first-ever World Cup one day.
“Certainly that’s what we’re shooting to be able to do,” 26-year-old Shannon said. “I would love to help get them to the World Cup and be part of the team that qualified for the first time. I’m always striving to help the team do as well as we can.
"The team has grown so much over the last couple of years and the level of play has gone up a lot. It’s tough to compete with some of the teams that have money to pay players and have them in training camp regularly, but I think we’re closing the gap on the competition.”
The McDonnell sisters have dual citizenship and their eligibility for the Irish team derives from their grandfather, who is from Roxford, Ireland.
Shannon, who helped lead Sandburg to a state runner-up finish in 2001 as a sophomore, first represented the Republic of Ireland during a summer 2009 training camp in Indiana and currently has 10 caps (for game appearances). Mary Therese made her first appearances for Ireland in three friendly games against the United States in September 2008 and has 15 caps.
“After college I played in Boston for a summer and it turned out my coach was Irish,” Mary Therese, 24, said. “He literally walked up to us on the practice field and asked if any of us were Irish, and one thing led to another. It’s been great.
"Going from representing your high school, then representing your college and then representing a whole country and playing for your family has been an incredible experience. I always knew I could be an Irish citizen, but I never really put much thought into playing professionally growing up. After I graduated, I missed the game and started considering my options.”
Ireland’s last competition was in the World Cup Qualifier where it finished third in a group that included World Cup qualifier Switzerland, Russia, Israel and Kazakhstan.
Ireland will next attempt to qualify for the 2013 European Championships.
“Playing with my sister has been great,” Shannon said. “It has made the experience 10 times more meaningful and fun for us. We were fortunate that we were able to play in college together (at the University of Illinois) and to continue at the next level of soccer has been cool.
"It’s great sharing the experience, seeing (Mary Therese) be successful and how she’s grown as a player. On top of that, we get to travel and experience many different cultures and spend time in Ireland. Having my sister with me has been great.”
Irish and USA Pride
The McDonnell sisters, whose three brothers played club hockey at the University of Illinois, were disappointed to see the United States women lose the gold-medal contest to Japan, but they were enthralled in the hoopla surrounding the World Cup like many around the world.
“It was pretty amazing, to say the least,” Mary Therese said. “My college roommate (Emily Zurrer) played in it with Canada and some of my old teammates when I played professionally were in it, so that makes it extra exciting.
"It’s great for the sport and for the women’s professional game. They had record crowds and had a lot of people watching. I think (Ireland) is closer than ever to qualifying and the gains we’ve made in the past two years have been substantial. Hopefully one day we can be part of it.”
Mary Therese, who currently is in graduate school at Illinois, has been unattached on the club level since being released from St. Louis Athletica’s training camp in March 2010. After graduating from Illinois, she played for the Boston Renegades in the W-League in 2008.
She was selected by Sky Blue FC in the 2009 Women’s Professional Soccer Draft, but then released. Mary Therese joined the Chicago Red Stars as a developmental player, but never made the roster.
“A personal highlight was last August when Ireland played Russia in Ireland,” Mary Therese said. “We ended up tying them, which was a huge game for Ireland. My sister and I both got to play and my entire family flew over for the game. It was one of our best games.”
Making a Difference
Shannon is currently in her first season with the Chicago Red Stars of the Women’s Premier Soccer League. She signed with the Red Stars in June after the club left the WPS and reconstituted itself in the WPSL.
The Red Stars qualified for and will host the four-team WPSL National Championships Saturday and Sunday at Benedictine University in Lisle after beating FC Indiana and FC Milwaukee to capture the WPSL Midwest championship.
“It’s been a great season,” Shannon said. “Coming back home and hosting the finals will be awesome. We’re improving every game and are really coming together. It’s been a lot of fun.
"I love every opportunity I get to play soccer. I’m just thankful they kept the club around to give players like me, a 26-year-old out of college, some place to play. It’s great being part of an organization like this with so many quality players and coaches.”
Shannon was also hired as the club’s camps director.
“I love coaching the camp and doing that kind of work,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for younger players to have positive role models and quality female coaches in their lives. Teaching younger girls and giving them insight into what it takes to get to the next level is very rewarding.”
Tomorrow: Mary Therese and Shannon McDonnell look back on their experiences at Sandburg.