The 2007 Algarve Cup marks the year anniversary of Natasha Kai’s debut for the U.S. Women’s National Team. It was an eventful start to her international career, featuring goals in her first two games and a bad concussion in the third.
The Algarve Cup can be a proving ground for an international player. Four games, on European soil, little rest, world class teams, high stakes. If you can perform at this tournament, it’s a good sign that you can hang with the best of the best. For forward Natasha Kai, the 2006 Algarve Cup was her breakout performance. Uncapped coming into the tournament, she didn’t play in the first match, a 0-0 tie against China, but the last three games were eventful to say the least.
Against Denmark in the second game, Kai made her international debut, coming on at halftime with the USA holding a 4-0 lead. In the 71st minute, she read a Danish back pass and pounced on the miscue to score her first goal, becoming the 16th U.S. woman to score in her first cap.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Kai, who also became the first player from the state of Hawaii to earn a cap for the Women’s National Team. “I knew I would get the chance to play at some point in the tournament, but it didn’t really hit me that I was going to get in until (U.S. head coach Greg Ryan) told me at halftime. My mind was going 100 miles an hour. I was nervous for the kickoff, but after that, I just relaxed and played.”
In fact, Kai’s goal was a picture of calmness. At least, it looked that way to someone watching in the stands as she deftly chipped the Danish ‘keeper from a sharp angle.
“I heard the ‘keeper yelling something so I knew (the defender) was going to try to pass it back,” said Kai. “So I just ran past the defender and she rolled it right into my path. I was at a weird angle so I bent the ball to the far post. I was just thinking, ‘score, score, score.’ I seriously was thinking, ‘One-on-one with the ‘keeper, c’mon brah, you can’t blow this chance.’ It felt so good to have that feeling after all the nerves. And we won, so that made it even better.”
Against France in the next match, the USA was again up comfortably, this time 3-1, when Kai entered the game at halftime. Against Denmark, it took her 26 minutes to get a goal. Against the French, it was a bit more difficult. She didn’t score until her 28th minute on the field. Again, the speedy striker found herself one-on-one with the ‘keeper.
“I just thought it was a dream to score in two games in a row,” said Kai. “It was a great pass, but the ‘keeper read me well and got a piece of the ball as she slid at my feet. I got it back and didn’t even look at the goal. I just whirled around and chipped it. It was pretty crazy.”
Kai did indeed go crazy after both goals, showing a youthful enthusiasm and wide-eyed celebration that befitted the moments.
“It’s just my personality,” said the cheerful Hawaiian. “Even when I don’t score, I love to celebrate with the players that do. Scoring is like a reward. When you work hard for 90 minutes and you get a goal, you should celebrate. Celebrate for you, your teammates, your coaches, the fans and everyone.”
The two goals in her first two games did a lot for the confidence of the newcomer, who came from an unorthodox development and playing background. She had just a year and a half with the U.S. U-21s, very little youth club soccer under her belt and even less ODP experience.
The highs of the first two games were contrasted with the lows of the Algarve Cup championship game, for sure a good lesson for a young player. Kai took a shot to the head during the tussle with Germany and remains a bit fuzzy on any details from her first big tournament final. She came on in the 70th minute, but lasted just 15 minutes into overtime before having to come out.
“I don’t really remember much,” said Kai. “I only know by the tape. I got head-butted, got kind of dizzy and went off the field. They checked me out and I guess I felt ok, so I went back on the field, but then I headed a few balls and did a few bicycles kicks. I guess Abby (Wambach) came over to me to see if I was ok and I just hit the ground. The next thing I remember, I was in the hospital with one big headache.”
Kai didn’t see the USA fall in penalty kicks to the Germans, but she will be highly motivated to do her part to get the USA back to the title game and perhaps another shot at the defending champions.
The Algarve Cup will always carry fond memories for her, but she hopes it was the starting point for more great accomplishments on the field.
“I think a lot of us feel like we belong (on the national team), but at the same time, there is a lot of room for improvement, and to this day, I feel I have so many areas I need to improve in,” said Kai. “When you get your chance, you have to show Coach Greg why you belong on this team. There is so much talent in our country that one day you will wake up and someone will be there to take your spot, so you have to keep fighting and improving to show why you belong on this team. The Algarve Cup was a great start for me, but it was just that, a beginning.”