The U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team sprinted out of the gates at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Brazil, winning its first three matches comfortably, thanks in no small part to forward Kelley O’Hara, who has played a role in seven of the USA’s 13 goals so far, scoring three herself. With the USA all but through to the semifinals, the young Americans will focus on meeting Mexico in their final group match on July 20 at the famed Maracana Stadium before a daunting match-up with either the full National Team of Brazil or Canada in the semifinals. Center Circle caught up with O’Hara at the Athletes Village in Rio de Janeiro to discuss, among several topics, her growth as a player, her thoughts on Brazil and how she has her sights set on the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
You were in Brazil in 2006 with the U-20s before the FIFA World Championship, but the team was not based in Rio. What do you think of the city now that you have spent some more time there?
Kelley O’Hara: “I love it. The Athletes' Village that we have been staying at is amazing. It meets the need of every athlete beyond expectations. We’ve also been to the beach, although it was one close by the Village, not Copacabana or Ipanema. The people are awesome, really nice, and they have done a good job providing good venues. The whole experience had been great.”
What is your favorite thing about Brazil?
Kelley O: “The people. They are just so nice and welcoming. They always want to talk to you and help you out. That’s probably the best part. You walk up to them and ask if they speak English. Some of them do, most don’t, so you just use hand gestures to get by.”
Did you go to the Opening Ceremonies? What were your impressions?
Kelley O: “It was amazing. Just walking out in the parade of athletes was awesome. There were people flanking us playing drums and Brazilians know how to play drums for sure. We didn’t get to see much of the show because we had to leave early, but apparently the lighting of the torch was great. It was done really, really well. It was an amazing experience.”
How has the competition on the field been so far?
Kelley O: “It’s been really good. It’s always good to come and play international competition, especially older players, because they know how to do things you don’t see in the U.S. There is a lot of gamesmanship and it’s just a different level of soccer. We like playing older teams. You can really learn from that and you take away a lot from the games you play.”
You are now one of the older players on the U-20s as opposed to being one of the youngest during the last cycle. Do you feel your role changing?
Kelley O: “It definitely has changed. When I was younger over the past two years, it was kind of nice to be able come in and not worry about carrying the team, but I learned a lot from the veterans of the 20s last year. I feel like the players from the last team Tobin (Heath), Lauren (Cheney), Casey (Nogueira) and Britt Taylor, it’s our responsibility to come lift the level of play for the younger players.”
You and Lauren Cheney have been scoring most of the goals for the USA. Do you feel more comfortable out there?
Kelley O: “I had my whole experience with the 20s in 2006, playing in the World Championship in Russia, and yes, you get more comfortable the more games you play at this level. It definitely helps being able to play your game and enjoy it while not having to worry about messing up too bad. Being able to play with all these girls again, and the new girls, has been awesome.”
Tell us about this new U.S. U-20 team. What are its strengths?
Kelley O: “We have some people whose first international game was against Paraguay in this tournament, but everyone is embracing the experience. I can see them growing so much in just this short time. We are scoring goals and our defense has played awesome. Players have stepped up and proven themselves worthy of being on the National Team.”
Can you compare this team with the last U-20 team?
Kelley O: “They are completely different teams. It’s tough to compare. I don’t put one over the other, it’s just still so early in our preparation.”
The next U-20 Women’s World Cup is well over a year from now. Can you even think that far down the road?
Kelley O: “I hope that most players have that in the back of their minds because that is the ultimate goal. Being here and playing in this setting, this environment and this competition, is a good preview to what we should expect in a year in a half. I think after this competition, we’ll see where we are and being able to project a little bit in the future.”
You got to train with the full Women’s National Team for a brief time this summer. How was that experience for you?
Kelley O: “It was great. Everyone has that as their goal and I learned a lot from it. The players were very welcoming and the level of play was amazing. I took what I could from it and hopefully I can build on that with the U-20s and maybe return to play with the full team at some point.”
You guys are pretty much through to the semifinals where you are going to be playing either the full team of Canada or Brazil, both of which are in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup. What’s the mindset of the team for the semi?
Kelley O: “We’ve stepped up to a lot of challenges already in this tournament. We are going a game at a time, if and when we make it to the semifinals, we’ll have to lift our level again. This team is definitely capable of doing well in a match like that. I am totally looking forward to it. I can’t wait to play one of those teams. That’s what I’ve thought before all the games.”