As the National Women’s Soccer League kicks off its fifth season, it’s impact on the game in the United States continues to grow, not only for the players in the league, but for the many young girls across the country who now have tremendous role models in their home areas that they can watch almost every weekend.
Most importantly, the league provides a key bridge on the pathway for American female soccer players, from youth club to college to the pros, and for a select few, to the U.S. Women’s National Team.
The NWSL provides a vital platform for players to perform and prove themselves against difficult competition on a weekly basis, an environment that not only helps veteran National Team players show their consistency and impact, but even more importantly gives younger players a stage to audition for National Team call-ups.
After earning her first call-up to the senior side last October, Kealia Ohai earned her first cap on Oct. 23 against Switzerland and scored 48 seconds into her debut, the fastest goal in a first cap in WNT history. She then went on to start both matches against Romania in November and was part of the WNT’s January Camp in California a few months ago.
Most recently she trained with the team in Texas ahead of a pair of friendlies against Russia and dressed for one of the games but did not see any action. Despite her limited playing time as she continues to work to break into the WNT on a more consistent basis, Ohai doesn’t take a second of time in camp for granted because she knows how hard it was to even reach that point, and what an honor it is to wear the crest.
“The coolest thing for me about coming into camp is that I genuinely feel like I get better,” Ohai said. “It sounds very cliché but the practices that we have with the National Team and the scrimmages that we have are the hardest games that I’ve ever played in because you’re playing against the best all the time. It’s even fun to get to watch to training, to see what different players are doing. You really do get better. That’s my favorite part, practicing and improving as a player.”
She also had a successful career at University of North Carolina from 2010-13, winning the NCAA Championship in 2012. She was drafted in the 2014 NWSL College Draft with the second overall pick by the Houston Dash as the expansion team's very first college draft pick.
Still, there are many players with successful Youth National Team careers and college accolades who do not make the jump to the full National Team. She knew she needed to do more. And where could she add to her resume? The NWSL.
“I knew that to get called up,” Ohai said. “I would have to score a lot of goals or do something big.”
During the 2016 season, that’s exactly what she did. Ohai tied NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams with 11 goals during the season (Williams won via the assists tiebreaker), including nine in seven games. Her flashy performance in the league captured the attention of WNT head coach Jill Ellis, who invited Ohai to her first senior camp.
“I played on all the youth teams growing up and I went to the U-20 World Cup and then it was a big break between that and getting called up into the full team,” she said. “But the call-up was so exciting. It came right after my third season in the NWSL. I had waited for it for a long time.”
Ohai is a perfect example of how the league can serve as a platform for hundreds of players to show they have the qualities to pique the interest of National Team scouts.
“My former college coach Anson (Dorrance) would always talk about Allie Long and her journey,” Ohai said a player who played in the 2006 U-20 Women’s World Cup but didn’t get her first WNT call-up until age 26. “About how she played well in the league, scored a bunch of goals, and she eventually got the call. And now she is a starter. I knew that I had to find a way to stand out to get looked at. That’s the first step.”
Now that she’s had the chance to train and play in the Women’s National Team alongside many veteran players, Ohai understands how difficult it is to break into the team as well as how much these players have done for women’s soccer.
“It’s been fun to be in these senior camps but it’s also hard,” she said. “You’re trying to prove yourself and fit in. I think each camp, while it’s not gotten easier, I now know what to expect and I know how valuable it is to come in here and train with these players. When I go back with the Houston Dash I feel more confident and I feel better. I was lucky enough to get drafted out of college, and at that time I didn’t understand that a lot of veteran players stayed and played in the league because they wanted to see it grow in the United States. I know a lot of them had opportunities to go overseas, but they wanted to stay here instead. Now, I feel like that’s all paying off for them and for all of us.”
Ohai hopes there are other WNT call-ups in her future, but she is taking nothing for granted. Now, she is turning all her focus to the beginning of the new NWSL season. If there is one thing she learned last year is that a standout club season can lead to good things.
“This league is important and I think people have sacrificed a lot for this,” she said. “It hasn’t always been what it is now, so to see its continued improvement every year…wow. And now with the TV deal with Lifetime, it’s amazing. It’s cool for younger girls to have something to look up to and know they can also become professional soccer players.”
The NWSL season kicks off on April 15, 2017. Find the full schedule on nwslsoccer.com.