In the future, soccer aficionados might remember the 2012 Under-20 World Cup for something besides the United States' upset victory over a powerhouse German team in Tokyo. Maybe they'll recall it as the international unveiling of Kealia Ohai.
Ohai, the speedy and tireless forward from Alta High School and the University of North Carolina, kicked the only goal in the finals to defeat Germany — a team so strong that Ohai's goal ended Germany's record shutout streak at 610 minutes and was the only goal allowed by the Germans in the tournament. Ohai also scored in the semifinals to help the Americans defeat Nigeria, 2-0.
But it was more than that. To appreciate Ohai — or, for that matter, any soccer player — you must see her play.
Of all the sports, soccer is perhaps the most difficult to quantify performance by statistics. Ohai tallied a couple of goals and a couple of key assists, but what keen observers noticed was her sprinter's speed and endless energy and the way she ranged the length of the field, rushing back to play defense at one end, then running to play offense at the other end.
Nobody covered as much field or played with as much intensity as Ohai, and Julie Foudy, the former soccer star-turn-TV announcer, noted during the broadcast that she was still running hard up and down the field late in the game. None of this was lost on the crowd. When she dashed up the field dribbling the ball, the fans in Tokyo responded — "oooooo," "ahhhhh." After the game, U.S. coach Steve Swanson told Ohai's father, Ben, "Kealia has a second gear. I just love her."
"Obviously, she had an extraordinary world championship," says Anson Dorrance, Ohai's collegiate coach and a legendary figure in U.S. soccer. "But what I really like is what she did for the team. What the tournament told us about her is that she competes with a lot of pride and does the dirty work — she tracks back, plays offense, goes end to end, does this incredible heavy lifting and still scores the game-winning goal. She contributed in so many ways. That's what separates her."
Dorrance, who coached the U.S. to victory in the first women's World Cup in 1991 and North Carolina to 20 NCAA championships, notes that most players who play the striker or forward positions are prima donnas. They're like scorers in basketball — they rest on defense.
"Usually, this defending stuff is beneath them," Dorrance says. "Most players who have the great attacking qualities don't defend. It's exhausting and it's not expected of them. Superstar strikers are given that opportunity to hang out with their arms folded."
Ohai takes no such privileges, and this did not go unnoticed by Swanson. He carried six forwards on the U.S. roster. In group play, the coach told the forwards he would play all of them and then choose the best for the championship round. Ohai started the first two games, but came off the bench in the third game — a 3-0 loss to Germany. But in the U.S.'s three games in the championship round — against Korea, Nigeria and Germany — she never left the field.
"She invested herself in every game, so much so that she was the only striker not taken off the field," says Dorrance. "It's just a significant achievement to contribute in so many ways. She creates (scores) and scores, but she also runs all the way back to dig a ball out; it's exhausting. She wanted to win so badly she would do anything. She would do that dirty work. We coaches love these kinds of players."
For Ohai's part, she responds to questions and comments about her energy on the field by saying, "I always tell people it's not because I'm more fit; I just don't want to stop running. I'm in pain on the field and it's not easy; I just keep running 'cause don't want to get beat."