Kealia Ohai Discusses Her Long Wait, and Debut Goal
November 08, 2016
FOUR YEARS AGO, in the fall of 2012, Kealia Ohai looked set to become the new face of an upcoming generation of American players primed for stardom on the United States women’s national team.
That September, she led the U.S. U-20s to a World Cup title, scoring the game-winning goal in the final against Germany—a team that hadn’t conceded a single tally in the entire tournament. Returning stateside after the tournament, Ohai then guided the University of North Carolina to a national championship, again scoring in the final.
A month after the Tar Heels lifted the NCAA trophy, two of Ohai’s U-20 teammates—Julie Johnston and Crystal Dunn—received their first senior team call-ups. A number of other players from that U-20 team, including Morgan Brian and Sam Mewis, soon followed. Johnston and Brian eventually worked their way into the starting lineup and became stars in the U.S.’ 2015 World Cup win and this past summer, Dunn and Mewis joined them, representing America at the Rio Olympics.
The entire time, Ohai’s phone didn’t ring—a senior team call-up never arriving. Frustrated, and questioning her abilities, the 24-year-old began to doubt her future in the game.
“There were a lot of times when I didn’t know if I could do it anymore and my confidence was up and down,” explained Ohai, speaking to American Soccer Now.
“I’ve always wanted to play for the national team, so every time a roster would come out, I would be really upset.”
After college, Ohai turned pro and the Houston Dash drafted her second—sandwiched between Dunn as the No. 1 pick and Johnston as the No. 3 selection—in 2014. However, the Dash, an expansion side, struggled, and Ohai managed only four goals in each of her first two years in the league.
While her family and friends remained supportive, Ohai still dreamt of the national team. She reached out to her former UNC coach, Anson Dorrance, who offered some sage advice.
“Anson Dorrance has always been such a good friend to me and a mentor. He’s very realistic, he’s not telling me ‘You’re the greatest.’ He tells me how it is,” noted the midfielder. “He’s always helped me throughout my career and basically told me what he thought I needed to do to get called in. His advice was, ‘You need to score goals in the league.’
Ohai followed that advice—easier said than done—in 2016, scoring 11 times for the Dash and finishing tied for the NWSL lead. Then, shortly after the season ended, Ohai got the call she’d been awaiting.
“I was in the car with my sister in Houston. I was so excited I started crying and my sister started crying. I will never forget that moment,” recalled Ohai.
“To get to call my parents [and tell them], it was amazing. I dreamed about that moment for so long. It was even more exciting and more fulfilling that I even could have imagined.”
However, making her first camp presented Ohai with a new challenge—getting on the field. Even with her considerable success in college, as a professional, and on the youth national teams, the competitiveness of the senior national team camp came as a shock.
“Coming into the national team, you really can’t understand how difficult it is, or the dynamic until you’re actually in camp,” noted the Tar Heel alumna. “We know all these girls, I play with these girls—they tell you about camp, you hear stories, but you have to get called in to see how competitive it is and how difficult it is, especially for the first time.”
Once again, Ohai received some outside help. Along with Morgan Brian, a close friend who Ohai knows from the Dash and U.S. youth teams, aid came from new teammates Kelley O’Hara and Allie Long.
“I roomed with Kelley O’Hara [at camp]. I didn’t know her too well before, but she was really helpful and really nice and helped me with the ins and outs of what you have to do in camp,” Ohai recalled. “Allie Long—I didn’t know her too well before camp either, but she went to UNC, so we both know Anson really well. She helped both in that camp and in this camp. She’s been so helpful and nice to me and a really good role model for me.”
After a week of training in the October camp, the U.S. played the first of two friendlies against Switzerland. That match was played in Sandy, Utah, only minutes from where Ohai grew up. However, she didn’t dress for the match and, after a 4-0 win, the team headed to Minneapolis for the second contest against the Swiss.
This time, Ohai made the bench and got her chance in the second half. In the 81st minute, head coach Jill Ellis sent the midfielder into the game. And after a four-year wait, it only took 48 seconds for Ohai to make her mark. Receiving a pass inside the box, she took a touch, beat her defender, and slotted home—setting a national team record in the process.
Looking back, Ohai now accepts she just had to wait until the time was right.
“I knew I just had to wait for that perfect chance for me, for my moment. It was definitely hard waiting, but it was definitely worth the wait and all the hard work throughout that time,” said the winger.
“To wait that long, it made it that much more special. It was also the right time in my career to get called in,” she later added.
Now brimming with confidence, Ohai is back in camp again ahead of two November friendlies against Romania (Thursday, 10pm ET, ESPN2) and hoping to contribute again.
“If I get another opportunity to get another cap against Romania, I want to score. That’s always my goal, to either score or assist—just produce.
“That’s the biggest thing for me, to make an impact on the game.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.