A stats sheet might tell you about an athlete’s skill, a roster profile might tell you about their collegiate pedigree, and where they fell in the NWSL draft might tell you about their potential, but none of these represent an athlete’s resolution to progress. After her third year in the NWSL, Kealia Ohai is doing just that.
By the time the 2016 season came to a close, the Houston Dash forward had tied with Lynn Williams as the highest league goal-scorer, earned honors as part of the league’s Best XI team, and made the senior U.S. women’s national team camp roster for the October friendlies (18 of 24 players will be rostered for each of two friendlies). When she discusses her growth over the last three years, the 24-year-old Utah native speaks to the lessons she’s learned in developing leadership skills, managing frustration, and staying focused on objectives for club and country.
One such opportunity for growth was taking on the Dash’s captaincy this season. Ohai acknowledged that picking up the leadership role from Carli Lloyd (who would be intermittently absent from club play due to Olympic obligations) was an honor but a challenge.
“Stepping in as captain was exciting but also interesting for me because I still see myself as one of the younger players,” she explained before going on to add, “[being captain] takes some tough love, but it also takes knowing your teammates and being able to adapt your leadership and support to different types of players.”
Ohai and her team’s resolve was further tested as the Dash struggled in their third season, ultimately landing in 8th place. The “ebbs and flows” of the Dash’s season, one which saw a record six consecutive games without a goal, was “extremely frustrating,” according to the former North Carolina Tar Heel. “Sometimes it was so frustrating it was almost unbearable.” Houston’s last game against Seattle was a match she highlighted as a particularly good example of the team’s struggle. On her personal 11 goals of the season she noted, “scoring goals is great, but the thing that really matters is whether the team is winning and getting results…one thing we can improve on [in 2017] is elevating the level of our intensity. We are going to try to do that from the first practice.”
Resolution in the face of frustration has been a theme in Ohai’s personal career over the last few years as well. Her journey from the 2012 U-20 national team — which won the World Cup that year — to the first call up for the senior U.S. team was challenging at times, but she accepts that it is part of the process.
“I look at that period of time, I look back, and feel that now is the time it was meant to happen,” she tells The Equalizer.
It is hard to ignore the serendipitous footnote that the October 19 game is being held in her home state of Utah, a place she credits with having a great soccer culture in addition to her family and friends.
“She has completely benefited from having the league, having these opportunities to go against good players and prove her worth,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “A long time ago, Kealia when I first took over came in. We had a U-23 [camp] combined with the women’s team so I saw her there, and she didn’t perform very well. So I kind of had an early look at her and I think the message was that you’ve got to stand out in that environment.”
The ability to adapt and progress seems to be a quality of particular interest for Ellis as she gives these young standouts a chance in the friendlies.
“It’s not just where they are now, it’s where they can end up. That’s the important thing.”