It was a grand experiment.
What happens when you take an immensely talented attacking player with unique athletic gifts, but one who has played forward all her life, then give her a crash course in the intricacies of “outside back” just a few months before throwing her onto the world’s stage?
That was the experiment undertaken four years ago in England, and the laboratory was the Olympics.
Kelley O’Hara, one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the USA’s Youth National Teams (24 goals in 35 U-20 caps), a player who scored 57 goals with 32 assists at Stanford and who won the Hermann Trophy during her senior year in 2009 as college soccer’s best player while playing forward – would be starting at left back at the 2012 Olympics.
We’re not sure how “fortune favors the bold” translates in Swedish, but no one ever accused former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage of not taking risks.
But with risk comes, well, risk, and it was not the easiest of transitions for O’Hara, who back in 2012 was just trying to find a way to work herself into an already stacked WNT lineup.
O'Hara (left) assisted on Megan Rapinoe and the USA's second goal in the team's thrilling 4-3 extra time defeat of Canada in the 2012 Olympic Semifinal.
The experiment began on Jan. 22, 2012, in a rout of Guatemala at the Olympic Qualifying tournament in Vancouver, Canada, when O’Hara played outside back for the first time in her life. At any level. Her attacking talents from the positon were immediately evident as she picked up three assists.
She then got the start in the semifinal match against Costa Rica and had an excellent game as the USA qualified for the Olympics.
“The most uncomfortable part was that I’d never been on that particular patch of grass before facing that direction,” said O’Hara about her defender debut. “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.”
Yes, that defending part.
One of the reasons O’Hara was such an attractive prospect at outside back was a combination of her fitness, her well-known attacking qualities and the ability to tackle with a force and bite way beyond her size.
But she would need to learn how to function on a back line, and Olympic Qualifying was a good place to dip her toe in the murky waters of defense.
During that tournament, it did indeed seem like something special was brewing. She switched to left back in the 4-0 demolition of Canada in the championship game and her accelerated course load at Outside Back University was underway.
O’Hara had an uncomfortable moment in the next game against New Zealand when a mistake led to a Kiwi goal, but it was all part of the learning process. Her confidence grew with every game.
From there, with Amy LePeilbet staking a claim to the right back position (backed up by Heather Mitts), O’Hara made left back her own.
She benefited from experiencing some top-class games at the Algarve Cup in Portugal, playing twice against Japan in Japan, another bout with the Japanese in a tournament in Sweden, as well as several pre-Olympic friendlies. Things started to click.
When O’Hara - a quick study who graduated from Stanford with a degree in science, technology and society with a focus in environmental engineering - arrived at the Olympics, she was ready for her new role.
It’s not like there weren’t a few bumps in the road during the Olympics, but O’Hara played spectacularly and was a massive factor in the USA’s Olympic success. She was on the field for every minute of all six wins as the USA earned the gold medal, even though she was the second youngest starter (behind Alex Morgan) after entering the Olympic games with just 19 caps.
Fast forward to 2016 in Brazil, and the experience of four years ago has proven invaluable to her development as a world-class outside back.
O'Hara in action vs. South Africa during one of the USA's final Olympic tune-up matches on July 9 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
“I feel much different in 2016, and not just as an outside back, but also as a player on this team,” O’Hara said. “Right now I’m rooming with Mallory Pugh and she’s actually 10 years younger than me, which is hilarious but also awesome. Four years ago, I was very much in the mindset of ‘don’t mess it up for the older players’ and also it was focusing on myself and what I needed to do to make it through the tournament and help out the team. Now, I’m in a different position as far as leadership and helping out these younger players with advice or support or guidance if needed.”
With four years and 57 caps under her belt since the end of the last Olympic games, not to mention an uber-dramatic and emotional first international goal against Germany in the semifinal of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, she’s excelling at her position on the right side with Meghan Klingenberg patrolling the left flank. And since she has played mostly in attacking roles in her professional club career, she’s still had the chance to enjoy some time in the final third, which is something she surely applies to her time as a defender for the WNT.
In Brazil, she’ll be the only back line starter that returns from 2012, but she’s embracing a new and different role.
“I did feel very comfortable going into the London Olympics because I felt we had a good understanding of each other on the back line, with Hope, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler and Amy LePeilbet,” said O’Hara. “It was a question of ‘am I ready?’ Now I have more caps and more experience and time with the team. After winning a gold and winning a World Cup, it’s quite a different place than going into your first Olympics.”
O’Hara is not the first American attacking player to be the subject of a successful position switch experiment – see Rampone and Chastain – but she’s well on her way to being one of the best.