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'That's literally what Kentucky brought': Jess McDonald chooses Racing Louisville FC

The World Cup champion and NWSL all-time assists leader was traded to the club in December.
Credit: Connor Cunningham

LOUISVILLE, Ky. โ€” As players across the National Women's Soccer League pushed to start a transformation of the league last season, its all-time assists leader and former North Carolina Courage star Jess McDonald saw a chance for a change.

"Obviously, I love North Carolina, that's honestly like home to me at the end of the day," Racing Louisville FC forward McDonald said. "But I feel like the dynamic changed so much in North Carolina."

McDonald spent the longest stint of her NWSL career with the Courage, playing three years. The club was one of four to fire head coaches for various allegations of abuse. And the league itself paused due to those while its former commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and players fought for a collective bargaining agreement. 

"So much happened in our league last year, where I saw a lot of my friends kind of hitting the reset button just like I did," said McDonald.

The soccer superstar had never gotten to push it herself before. The 34-year-old had been traded six times in a five-year span.

But this time, she was going to determine where she went.

"That's a game-changer, especially for female athletes because we never had that," McDonald said. "It was a relief to be able to choose because we never had our voices heard."

She said it felt like the league had so much control, whereas it feels like the players have "flipped the script" over the years.

"All the little girls who want to be in our shoes, we're also teaching them, 'Hey, this is what you can do. You can put your foot down and let them know what you want. Because that's what you deserve.' Because we deserve, as players, to be able to make those types of choices," said McDonald.

So she narrowed her desired destinations down to two choices, Racing being one of them, and informed her agent to pursue a trade. The club had shown some interest before. 

But McDonald got a much better chance to explore Louisville when she came to the city as an NWSL ambassador during the league's championship game in November. 

"I'm honestly not a city girl," McDonald admitted. "So any other city where any other NWSL markets are, it would not have been my vibe, from the traffic to the people. And I've played in plenty of places to know that I probably wouldn't have enjoyed myself outside of soccer. I really enjoy the quiet, but just like a good genuine vibe."

The genuine nature of Louisville's people even stood out to her brother when he visited, with him telling McDonald the level of kindness was a "different kind of nice."

"And that's a huge thing to me is just being around good people. That's literally what Kentucky brought," she said.

While McDonald found the city to be a cultural fit, the veteran still had to do more homework on the club itself. 

Racing had gone through its own turmoil in its inaugural season, firing its first head coach in Christy Holly for cause in August. While the club has not revealed its reasoning behind the decision, the NWSL Players Association released a statement in support of Louisville's handling of it. Former captain and goalkeeper Michelle Betos later said the team was protecting its players. 

McDonald was impressed with how the club dealt with that situation. And she asked many questions to friends on the team about its culture and much more over FaceTime and phone calls.

"How are you guys being treated, from the organization specifically," McDonald remembered asking. "How are your training facilities? And we got down to the nitty-gritty. They kept it real with me, people who I trust and it was players who were on this team."

Credit: EM Dash Photography

The World Cup champion also desired a new challenge. She wanted to use her experience and success to help boost a young club that finished with the second-least amount of points in the league in its first season. 

So the day before the 2022 NWSL Draft, Racing traded for McDonald. Since then, she's been impressed with the organization, calling the facilities "almost like a dream" with things like a cafeteria serving daily meals. But beyond that, she praised the club's overall approach.

"It's because of the support that they give us as players," McDonald said. "And it just shows the level of professionalism coming from our front office. Having even higher-ups have our backs, that's just been a true joy. Just moving forward and seeing it with my own eyes, I think it's been absolutely amazing."

On and off of the field, she's established herself with an "open book" personality that's made her a decorated and respected veteran. McDonald is a member of the team's captains group with fellow well-traveled standouts Gemma Bonner and Nadia Nadim, as well as emerging star Emily Fox. 

Her vocal presence has lent itself to suggesting changes in team rules and pointing out on-field adjustments for younger players to learn.

"I've been kind of vocal about where we need to set our standards," McDonald said. "And if we want to be a winning culture, this is what it's going to take."

She wants to set that example by mentoring teammates like rookie Kirsten Davis and more. Ranking fourth all-time in NWSL regular season goals, her attacking presence as a risk-taker has been felt, getting a goal and assist in three NWSL Challenge Cup matches.

"Obviously, as a striker, that's what I am," McDonald said. "And I'm telling my teammates, 'Turn, let's break lines, let's go forward, because that's where we create more opportunity. And so just bringing all my strengths on the field, I think the midfielders and other wingers on the team, they've been able to read my runs really, really well."

And as she prepares to embark on another NWSL regular season, the decision to change on her own terms seems to be going the same way. 

"Hopefully, they can kind of reflect off of my leadership on the field and just be able to apply it in-game," McDonald said. "So that's exactly what they've been doing. We're all just kind of meshing really well together as a team. That's the fun part about being challenged. That's the fun part about hitting the reset button and not knowing what to expect."

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