To many attacking players, defense is a four-letter word, as in “Defense? NOPE.”
Fortunately, that was not the case for Kelley O’Hara, who of late has seen her mindset and role for the U.S. Women’s National Team flipped from front to back.
O’Hara has long been one of the top young offensive players in the United States. She scored 24 goals in 35 Under-20 caps, the third-most ever for a U.S. player in that age group. She finished her stellar college career at Stanford with 57 goals and 32 assists, both school records. As a senior in 2009, she had one of the best seasons in Division I history, scoring 26 goals with 13 assists while winning the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player.
She scored 10 goals during her two seasons in WPS, an excellent number considering she played mostly outside midfield, the position where she earned her first seven WNT caps and where she saw brief action during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
But as 2011 turned to 2012, it became clear to the U.S. coaching staff that if O’Hara were going to see action on this flank-midfielder stocked team, it might have to be at another position. Thus began the conversion of O’Hara to outside back.
O’Hara’s first training camp with the full National Team came way back in 2007, and she started getting regular call-ups in 2010. But in a prime example of just how difficult it is to find playing time on the U.S. Women’s National Team – a team that has seemingly forever been one of the best in the world – O’Hara found game minutes hard to come by.
There are millions of girls playing soccer in the United States. To make it to the U.S. team is a wondrous achievement in itself, but the cold hard fact is that there are just 11 players on the field and 990 minutes to be doled out in any given match, of which the USA has only 20-25 a year. There is also a solid core of veterans in place who have not only proven themselves time and again in the most heated of competition, but who will battle to fend off the youngsters trying to take their spots.
What’s a kid to do?
There are only a few options. The first is not to get discouraged and to keep working hard every day during every training and every camp or event that you are fortunate enough to get called into. The second is embracing your inner versatility and perhaps taking on a different role.
As it turns out, O’Hara did both.
“I think anyone who gets called into the U.S. Women’s National Team has high expectations because they are high-achieving athletes and soccer players, so obviously I had high expectations going into my first few camps,” said O’Hara. “But at the same time, I am very realistic person. I knew my place and I knew getting playing time or into the starting lineup was going to be very difficult.”
She just didn’t know how difficult. O’Hara, one of the USA’s fittest players, worked long and hard in training camps in 2010 and 2011, trying to make a dent into the deep squad. She was one of the last cut from the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Team, but when a knee injury struck veteran Lindsay Tarpley, O’Hara was added as a replacement and got to experience the wild run in Germany.
“When you first come on this team, when you don’t make rosters or get playing time, you can accept it a bit more easily, but as time goes on and you’re not seeing fruits of your labor turn into playing time, it does get hard,” said the 23-year-old O’Hara. “But at the same time, the more experience you get in camps, the more you do understand that you just have to keep going and getting better. Some of these players have been around ten or twelve years, so they’ve gone through their hard times, they’ve persevered and that’s why they are still here.”
O’Hara first got a taste of outside back during an intra-squad scrimmage in England before the Women’s World Cup. “I guess I did fine at that point,” said O’Hara, who would also play in the position in scrimmages against boys’ teams as the year progressed, “but they didn’t have time to convert me before the World Cup, so they said, ‘let’s put it on the back burner for now.’”
Once the USA hit Olympic Qualifying in Canada this past January, it was time to move O’Hara to the front burner, or out of the frying pan and into the fire. Against Guatemala on Jan. 22, she started her first-ever game at left back (and we mean the first game at outside back in her ENTIRE soccer career since all the way back to when she was a wee O’Hara) and registered three assists. She then got her first-ever start at right back against Costa Rica in the match that qualified the USA for London. She also went the entire 90 minutes at left back against Canada during the 4-0 romp in the championship game.
Her position on the roster changed from a MF to a D, and now she’s full speed ahead in her new role.
“It’s been interesting,” said O’Hara. “Sometimes the hardest part, because I’m so new at it, is that the coaches are very critical of your every movement, but they have to be because they have to point out everything to you as much as possible. It’s sort of a crash course. You’re not necessarily doing a bad job, but they just have to give you all the information they can.”
One positive is that the coaching staff saw the potential in O’Hara to make the change on the field and embrace the challenge mentally. U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage also sees tremendous value in O’Hara going to the World Cup, not for her few minutes of action but because she could see close up what it takes to excel on the highest levels.
“We need outside backs that can come from behind,” said Sundhage. “We have great options at outside mid right now, and I don’t know if that will be her position in the future, but right now the team needs her at outside back.”
O’Hara does seem to have the qualities to excel at the position. She is 5-foot-5, a fearless tackler and just happens to hold the team record in the beep test, the USA’s grueling endurance test that is run almost every training camp. She says she feels like she’s been working harder at the new position – she claims she is about to keel over during the second half of games – and that her heart rate is through the roof. These are facts confirmed by the USA’s sports science statistics.
“The physical demands during training and games are higher for an outside back than a wide midfield player because they tend to cover more areas of the field and are more involved in attack and defense, especially in the system Pia plays,” said U.S. strength and fitness coach Dawn Scott. “In the last couple of games, she has pretty much covered the most distance of any of the players on the field, which is a reflection of the position and her overall fitness.”
O’Hara is the first to admit that she still has a long way to go and is leaning on her more experienced teammates in the back to bring her along as quickly as possible.
“I hope they are being patient with me, but under their breath they are probably saying, ‘Darn it, Kelley!’” said O’Hara with a smile. “They’ve all been awesome, though, and thankfully have been willing to work with me and give me tips and not kill me if I do something wrong.”
Sundhage is also being patient, but she likes what she’s seen so far, and O’Hara’s one-on-one dribbling abilities, cultivated in the attacking third for so many years, can certainly add an extra dimension to the team as she races forward from the back.
“Defensively, day by day, she learns a little bit more about the position,” said Sundhage, who lost starting right back Ali Krieger to a serious knee injury during Olympic Qualifying and thus saw more urgency in improving the team’s depth in the back. “She can track back, is fairly fast, is good in the air and can tackle. Whether or not she is successful will depend on how well she reads the game defensively. Attacking-wise, I have no doubt she can do the job. She is a great crosser of the ball, has a great engine and get up and down the flank as well as anyone.”
O’Hara, a free spirit who possesses the youthful enthusiasm for adventure, is seeing the positives of the situation.
“I love to play soccer and it’s a challenge, so I was like, all right, cool, let’s try something new,” said O’Hara. “I am enjoying it. I like it a lot. I can be an extra player in the attack, and it kind makes their forward or outside mid make a decision. Do they mark me or risk not going with me? If I play the position well, it makes the opponent reevaluate what they are doing.”
That’s not to say O’Hara is going to give up her goal scoring ways. With just 11 career caps heading into the 2012 Algarve Cup, she’s still looking for her first WNT goal and will seize the chance if it comes, but she also knows the truth about successful teams.
“It’s definitely a different role, but for me, I’ve always known that even as a forward, even when I’m scoring goals, we are winning because of the person next to me and behind me,” said O’Hara. “I’ve always known that soccer is a team sport and regardless of your role, everyone is contributing. That has made this whole experience easier.”
Defense, Kelley O’Hara? YUP.