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."
Her style of play won over fans. The Japanese took her photos when she was away from the field, and her Facebook fan page — created by soccer fans and friends — has been bombarded with messages of congratulation and admiration from all over the world — Venezuela, France, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Madagascar and almost anywhere else you can imagine, some in their native language and others in bad English. A sampling:
"Well played ... and thank you for your efforts. It is rare to see a forward so active on the defense. The energy you displayed was truly awesome."
"U've got a fan from Namibia."
"Woow yu are fast player, nice skill, pretty face ... perfect ... I hope I can meet a women like yu someday."
"You are my hero and you are my star."
"I'm your #1 fan. We can to be friends?"
"When the first time I saw you on TV I fell in love again."
Dorrance believes Ohai's performance in Japan also won over national-team coaches. He believes that her World Cup play not only will earn her an invitation to try out for the U23 team, but also an invitation to try out for the full national team — despite her tender age of 20.
"Does she have national-team qualities? Yes," says Dorrance. "I hope she continues to progress and can skip U23 and go straight to the national team."
Such expectations have followed Ohai since the day she helped Alta High win four state championships. By her senior season, she was considered the top recruit in the nation. She was named to the freshman All-American team after leading UNC in goals, points and game-winning goals. As a sophomore, she led the team in goals and was second in scoring. Since the day she stepped on campus she has drawn comparisons to Mia Hamm, a North Carolina alum and Dorrance protege.
"You never want to hang that around someone's neck," says Dorrance. "It's like calling a basketball player the next Michael Jordan. It's an unfair comparison. But she has Mia qualities. The closest one is her speed and her ability to go through defenses. Some qualities are not Miaesque yet. She doesn't have the same striking power and accuracy as Mia. But she's an absolutely wonderful player with a tremendous future. She's in control. She can achieve what she wants, depending on how seriously she invests her time."
He has urged Ohai to "spend time with the ball and hone her strike — her power and accuracy — as well as her heading. But she has all the tools and the mentality to play at the (full national team level)."
Ohai has been receiving training from none other than Hamm herself during her two years at North Carolina. "She's helped me with my strike," says Ohai. "She's helped me a lot. It's incredible when you step back and think, I'm being trained by Mia Hamm."
Since returning to school from the World Cup, Ohai has been scrambling to catch up. She missed the first three weeks of class (she took her classes online) and the first six games of the college soccer season. In her second game back, she scored both of UNC's goals in a 2-2 tie with unbeaten, fifth-ranked Virginia, despite being a marked woman. Dorrance says opponents game-plan for Ohai and give her extra defensive attention.
Ohai hopes that playing for UNC and Dorrance will lead her to her ultimate goal: To play for the full national team. That's a stiff challenge. There is a pecking order to make the team and even deserving players often have to wait their turn.
"Some girls try for four or five years," says Ohai. "It would be great to go straight to the full team, but there are 60 girls who are older than I am, and they're in line for a chance to make the full team."
Meanwhile, Ohai is coping with her newly found fame and popularity. "I haven't had a Twitter account ever," she says, "but my friends said I gotta get one. People from countries follow me. I've had things to Tweet about because of the World Cup, but I don't know what I'm gonna say every day."