SANDY — As fate would have it, after years of waiting to get called up to the U.S. national soccer team, Kealia Ohai will make her debut with the team tonight in Sandy, Utah — her hometown. She starred at Alta High, less than four miles away from Rio Tinto Stadium, site of Wednesday's game between the newly revamped U.S. team and Switzerland.
“Of all the places she gets called up, it’s here,” says Ohai’s father, Ben. “What are the odds of that?”
Ohai, who hasn’t played a game in her home state since she played for North Carolina against BYU in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, was one of 11 new players called up to the team earlier this month. The only question many observers have is why it took so long.
The U.S. is beginning the long buildup to the 2019 World Cup after getting shut out of the medals at the Rio Olympics. Coach Jill Ellis is giving what amounts to an on-the-job tryout to the new players, eight of whom are from the American professional league — National Women's Soccer League — and three who are from the collegiate ranks (including BYU’s Ashley Hatch, who has tallied a nation-leading 15 goals). Ellis elected to leave some veteran players home to enable her to look at the newcomers.
After Wednesday's game against Switzerland, the team will move on to Minneapolis on Oct. 23 for another match against Switzerland.
It’s a dramatic homecoming for Ohai. Any discussion of the greatest female athlete ever produced by Utah has to include Ohai. She has been playing for U.S. youth national teams since she was 14. At Alta High, she was a three-time first-team All-American, three-time state MVP, national player of the year, and the star on four state-championship teams.
At the University of North Carolina, she led the team in scoring and helped the Tar Heels win the 2012 NCAA championship, kicking the game-winning goal in the semifinals and the first goal of the finals. In 2012, she kicked the game-winning goal for the U.S. Under-20 national team against Germany in the finals of the Junior World Cup in Japan. In 2014, the Houston Dash of the NWSL made her the second overall pick of the draft.
Ohai’s rapid ascension seemed certain to land her on the U.S. national team and on the field for the World Cup and Olympics. When it didn’t happen some observers were dismayed (see internet).
The U.S. team — winners of the 2015 World Cup and the last three Olympics — has had relatively little turnover over the years, providing few opportunities for rising young players. Of the 23 players who comprised the 2015 World Cup team, eight were over the age of 30, three of them 35 or older. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, the Americans failed to reach the medal round.
With three years to prepare for the next big event — the 2019 World Cup — Ellis is remaking the team. As she said in a Q&A, “It’s about investment and the awareness to look at a player now and say, ‘OK, where are they going to be in two years if the investment is there?’ Two priorities coming out of the Olympics are the quality of the opponents that we play and finding players. The message for the players currently with us is that everything moving forward becomes performance and it’s not about how many caps you have.”
The 11 newcomers are the most Ellis has called up at once. Ohai, now 24, was an obvious choice. She went on a sensational scoring streak to end the NWSL season, netting 11 goals in the final 10 games to finish the season tied as the leading scorer in the league.
As Hal Kaiser noted on the Keepernotes.com website, “Since entering the NWSL, Ohai has been one of the names consistently tossed around as deserving of a call-up.”
Ask Ohai about being denied a call-up for so long, she says, “It is just really hard to make this team because there are so many good players and once you get on the team it’s your fulltime job — you’re paid, you get insurance through it and severance pay if they cut you. And once you get on the team you have the best training and best coaches. So it’s hard to take someone’s spot. When we won the U20 Cup (in 2012) and I didn’t get called up then, I knew I’d have to do something really big to get called up and this season I did that (her performance in the pro league).”
When the call finally came, Ohai says, “I was pretty surprised just because I’ve been hoping to get called up for so long.”