I didn’t really want to go overseas. If you’re trying to make the national team and you’re overseas, the national team coaches never see you. You don’t get exposure. All the girls on the national team who play overseas have been asked to come back and play in the NWSL. —Kealia Ohai
Does anyone lead a more charmed life than Kealia Ohai?
It’s not enough that she won four state championships at Alta High or an NCAA title at the University of North Carolina or that she kicked the winning goal in the U-20 World Cup in Tokyo last fall or that she was a first-team All-American or that she has fan websites devoted entirely to her or that she’s got talent and charm and beauty to boot (hence, the websites).
No, there’s more. In the latest chapter of the Kealia Ohai story, she was the second pick of the entire draft for the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League in January — chosen by Houston, which is where her sister Megan lives with her husband, NFL linebacker Brian Cushing.
Now if she can only have Megan as a teammate (which, by the way, is a possibility).
“I still can’t believe that I ended up in Houston,” Ohai said Tuesday after a morning practice. “It still feels unreal.”
For years Ohai had privately worried that she would have to pursue the next level of her sport in Europe, where she would be out of sight and out of mind of national-team coaches. The reincarnation of the NWSL changed that. All that was lacking, as far as Ohai was concerned, was a team in Houston.
“Megan and I joked that we wanted to start a team in Houston,” she says.
And then it happened. Late in the fall, only weeks before the draft, the Houston Dash joined the league. Immediately, Megan contacted the team to lobby them to draft her little sister. The Dash were already well aware of Kealia. The problem was that Houston had the fifth pick in the draft, and it was a near certainty that Ohai would be the No. 2 pick behind North Carolina teammate Crystal Dunn. Ohai figured she would be taken by Chicago, which owned the second and third picks.
“Then a week before the draft, they (Dash) called us and said they had figured it out and gotten the No. 2 pick,” says Ohai.
The league provides housing for players, but rookies are required to stay with host families. Ohai’s host will be her sister and brother-in-law, who tweeted his approval of the draft: “congrats to my sister in law @kealiaohai #2 pick in the NWSL draft to the @HoustDash couldn’t be happier!”
Dash coach Randy Waldrum seemed to feel the same way when he told reporters on draft day: “I couldn’t have asked for things to fall into place so well, starting with the selection of Kealia Ohai. We got one of the nation’s best forwards.”
According to Ohai, Waldrum not only wanted her on the team, he wanted her sister as well. Waldrum had seen Megan Ohai play for USC while he was coaching at Notre Dame. Megan Ohai was a four-year starter for the Trojans and, like her sister, won an NCAA championship. She ranks among the Trojans’ all-time top 10 in scoring and game-winning goals.
“He had watched her play and wanted her to play on the team,” says Kealia.
There was just one problem: Megan is pregnant with her second child.
“Maybe next year,” says Kealia.
The NWSL hopes to ride the wave of the Olympics and this year’s World Cup to cut out its place in the sports marketplace. Some of the teams played previously in the Women’s Professional Soccer League until it folded in 2012. NWSL officials hope new marketing schemes will help their venture.
Among other things, three of the franchises — Houston, Portland and Kansas City — have created partnerships with the local men’s MLS team. They have separate coaching staffs, but they share the same administrative staff, the same practice facilities and the same stadium.
When the Dash debut on April 12 in Houston, they will be the second game of a doubleheader, immediately following the men’s game. The women players will attend the men’s game and vice versa, making themselves available for fans and autographs.
If nothing else, the league will give the country's top female players an opportunity to play in their homeland and to be scouted by national-team coaches.
“I didn’t really want to go overseas,” says Ohai. “If you’re trying to make the national team and you’re overseas, the national team coaches never see you. You don’t get exposure. All the girls on the national team who play overseas have been asked to come back and play in the NWSL.”
Ohai will not only try to help the league and her team win fans and games, she will be trying to earn a spot on the national team with hopes of playing in the Olympics. Anyone who saw Ohai perform last fall in the FIFA U-20 world championships would be surprised to learn she hasn’t already been called up to the team. She was the star of the tournament. About half of the players from that team have already been called up, including players who didn’t see much action in the tournament.
“They keep telling me they have a lot of young forwards, and they do,” says Ohai, who plays on the U-23 national team. “They told me to play my first season in the pros, and I’ll get my chance. It’s frustrating. I’m just waiting.”
It’s about the only thing that hasn’t gone her way during her dazzling soccer career.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org