NCFC INSIDER: Denise O'Sullivan's Street Football Days
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Did you know that North Carolina Courage's two-time MVP Denise O’Sullivan developed most of her footballing skills playing pick-up games near her house?
The Knocknaheeny, Ireland native speaks about the lessons that she learned during her street football days, including how that experience turned her into the resilient midfielder that we admire today.
The field where 6-year-old O’Sullivan kicked her first football shares nothing with the seamless turf of WakeMed Soccer Park. A triangular stretch of uneven grass sitting in the middle of Knocknaheeny’s colorful detached houses, Courtown Park was not designed for kids to play football.
“It was bumpy, with tall trees in the middle that we had to play around,” O’Sullivan remembers.
The park lacked all the essential elements of a football pitch, including goals and sidelines to help determine whether the ball rolled out of bounds.
“We would use sweaters as goal posts,” she said. “And we would play until the ball would go off the field and onto the concrete.”
The conditions of the grass were irrelevant for O’Sullivan and her older brothers, John Paul, Mark, and David, who never turned down a chance to join the crowd of kids playing pick-up football after school. The games were particularly intense when the O’Sullivans were split into opposing teams.
“It was always really competitive (with my brothers),” she said. “Sometimes they would shout at me and I would get mad and shout back at them.”
The afternoon at the park always went by too quickly for O’Sullivan, who could run up and down that bumpy field for hours without getting tired. She recalls catching her breath only when the white ice-cream van circled around the block.
“We would take a break, eat ice cream, and go back to playing,” she said.
The day at the field ended when her mother, Nuala, opened the front door and gave her and her brothers a shout, telling them to come inside to eat dinner. By then, the sky over Courtown Park had gotten so dark that the kids could barely see the football.
Growing up, O’Sullivan carried the stigma of the girl who played what was widely considered a sport for men. To this day, she can still hear the Knocknaheeny boys grumbling any time she asked to join a pick-up game.
“Come on, she really can’t play football,” they used to say about her.
Such stereotypes fueled O’Sullivan’s desire to show off her talent. With her elusive dribbling, the blonde girl in white-and-silver Nike “Total 90” boots regularly caused the crowd of boys to fall silent.
“I used to always surprise them [the boys],” she said. “They were stronger and faster, but I was technically better than them.”
Competing against boys taught O’Sullivan several skills that she employs nowadays as a holding midfielder in the North Carolina Courage’s 4-4-2 formation. Her toughness, she explains, comes from those days at Courtown Park, when it was usual for strong challenges on her to go unpunished.
“I would be always falling playing against the boys,” she said laughing. “Sometimes they would knock me over [and] I would have scratches all over my knees.”
O’Sullivan’s ball distribution also benefited from playing against faster and physically stronger kids. She learned that spending little time on the ball is key for a midfielder that wants to avoid attracting pressure from the opponents.
“[Back then] you’d only have one or two touches and there would be a boy smashing you,” she said. “So, you'd have to let the ball go fast.”
Now 26 and in her fifth season as a professional footballer, O’Sullivan is one of the highest-ranked midfielders in the world. She has hoisted two National Women’s Soccer League championship trophies and is the number 10 for the Republic of Ireland national team, which is currently sitting atop group “I” of the 2022 UEFA European Women's Championship qualifying stage.
Despite having achieved global recognition as a footballer, O’Sullivan still looks back nostalgically at those days at Courtown Park. She admits that seeing the younger generations abandon the pick-up football tradition is painful.
“Kids nowadays play more PlayStation, or they have their phones,” she said. “It can distract them from going out and playing street soccer.”
Once the quarantine is over, O’Sullivan strongly advises young footballers to get outdoors and rediscover the beauty of playing pick-up games in streets or parks. In her view, there is no better place for footballers to build resilience and unleash creativity.
Who knows, perhaps that mentality will create another future MVP of the Courage.