The O'Hara Experiment
Turn one of the best attacking players in college history into an international defender and do it in less than a year. Then send her out against the world’s best at the Olympic Games. That was the experiment launched by former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, her coaching staff and Kelley O’Hara. As the calendar turns to 2013, consider The O’Hara Experiment a success.
Feb. 7, 2013
Kelley O’Hara just wanted to get on the field. So when former U.S. WNT head coach Pia Sundhage and her staff proposed a position change for the beginning of 2012, O’Hara said, “sign me up, when do I start?”
© John Todd/isiphotos.com
But the USA needed a left back. O’Hara is right-footed. And oh yeah, she’d never played in the back before, at any level for any team.
Consider also that O’Hara won the MAC Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player as a Stanford senior in 2009 and finished her career with 57 goals and 32 assists, both school records. She was also one of the top attacking players over her Youth National Team career, scoring 24 goals in 35 U-20 international matches, one of the best totals in U.S. history. She scored twice in the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup as one of the younger players on the team.
The challenge was daunting. The change was radical. Talk about getting pulled out of your comfort zone.
“The most uncomfortable part was that I’d never been on that particular patch of grass before facing that direction,” said O’Hara. “Over my entire soccer career, I was always getting the ball near half field, back to goal or running onto the ball in the attacking third, but not once in my life had I stood in that spot on the field and received a pass with the intention of getting the ball forward. And then there was the defending part.”
O’Hara underwent an intensive course of “defending and attacking from left back” and although it took a few games, she grew into the role. She says she didn’t start to feel truly comfortable until the summer trip to Sweden for matches against Sweden and Japan, but then things started to click.
“Every single game I could feel my confidence level growing. I was more comfortable and not as nervous,” said O’Hara, who admits she was terrified before her first start at outside back, which took place at Olympic Qualifying against Guatemala. For sure, 13 goals (the number the USA rang up against the Guatemalans) helped allay some fear, but such was the newness of her role.
By the time the Olympics arrived she was ready. O’Hara was one of just three players to play every minute of the tournament (along with team captain Christie Rampone and goalkeeper Hope Solo). She defended and attacked with passion and commitment. She even picked up an assist on Megan Rapinoe’s second goal in the epic 4-3 victory against Canada in the semifinal.
“Obviously, there’s a sense of accomplishment. I remember being in California at the beginning of the year at the training camp before qualifying and laying out my goals,” said O’Hara. “I knew I wanted to be starting at outside back in the Olympics, but even though I had that big goal, I knew that was going to happen only if I took it practice by practice. In the end it was an incredibly rewarding experience. It broadened my horizons and made me see the game in a different way than what I saw when playing up top. That will stay with me going forward.”
O’Hara was the second youngest starter on the Olympic Team (behind Alex Morgan) and admits to exhaling a huge deep breath after the Olympics, one she had sucked in back in January.
“It was pure elation, but I was so relieved that I didn’t screw anything up too badly,” said O’Hara, with a chuckle. “I was proud I was able to keep fighting and overcome any setbacks that I experienced leading up. In the end, I was pumped about what we were able to accomplish as a team, and being able to contribute was an added bonus.”
Where to go from here? O’Hara has played on all three lines in her national team career, but with a new year, a new coach and new goals, she’s ready to embrace any new challenge.
“I think we all realize that what happens going forward is all up to Tom Sermanni, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” she said. “Obviously, it’s pretty clear I will play wherever the coach wants me to play, and it’s nice to be able to have options. I love playing soccer and I just want to be out on the field.”
No matter what patch of grass she happens to be running on.