Forward Kealia Ohai's dreams are becoming reality with the Houston Dash
"Unreal," Kealia Ohai called it. Last August the striker and her Houston-based sister had joked about an NWSL team coming to the city but they dismissed the idea as a pipedream. A couple of months later she heard that plans really were afoot to start one. But surely, she thought, it isn't feasible to form a franchise in time for 2014?
Fast-forward to today and it's more than two months since Ohai was selected by the Dash with the second overall pick in the college draft and only a week before the team plays an exhibition match at BBVA Compass Stadium on April 5 as part of a doubleheader with the Dynamo. Then, on April 12, the Dash kick off their inaugural season at home to Portland Thorns FC (TICKETS). The "unreal" is starting to get very real.
The 22-year-old Utah native excelled at the University of North Carolina and Dash head coach Randy Waldrum was keen to bring her pace and offensive ability to the lineup. And it is a nice bonus for Ohai that her sister, Megan—who was a talented soccer player at the University of Southern California—lives in Houston and can help with the challenges of living in a new city and starting a new job.
Megan is married to Brian Cushing, the Houston Texans linebacker. "It's helped a lot and it's nice to have Brian, my brother-in-law—he knows everything about recovery, fitness, all that stuff so he helps me a lot. It's good to be around him and watching him train," Ohai told HoustonDashSoccer.com.
The Dash veterans, such as Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod, are also helping Ohai with the transition from the college ranks to the professional game.
"It's such a different lifestyle from college, you play a lot in college but it's completely different. To be able to watch them and see how they deal with everything and how they react to certain things helps a lot," she said.
As a rookie it is normal to have to adapt to a new environment, but with the club only a few months old, that is a feeling shared by everyone on the roster. "It's almost easier, as a rookie, to come in when everybody's new because if you come into a team that's set, it's really hard. There's a lot of veterans who have played in the league before who have helped us get acclimated and told us what to expect, so they've helped us a lot," she said.
"Every other team has been together for a year, they've been playing with each other, they know each other even off the field better. So we've been having a lot of team events, dinners, barbeques and stuff like that to try and get to know each other. The one thing I love about this team, about the Dash and the Dynamo organization, is that they want us to enjoy it because that's really a lot of it—to just enjoy yourself. So they try to make it as comfortable as possible and help us with so many things, even off the field. That's something I've really loved and I'm not sure if it's like that at every place.
"I think when [USWNT internationals] Meghan Klingenberg and Whitney Engen come back from their European team that's going to help a lot. A lot of us, and I know I do, aspire to be on the U.S. full team and so to be able to train with them every day, we'll see where that standard is and so I'm excited for that."
Ohai provided 40 goals and 26 assists in 86 games at UNC and scored the winning goal against Germany in the FIFA under-20 World Cup final in 2012. She is eager to earn a place on the full U.S. team: no easy task considering the side is stocked with talented forwards such as Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Christen Press.
But as the newest franchise, the Dash are set to be the center of attention when the NWSL season gets underway. That means Ohai will be firmly in the public eye and good performances are sure to be noticed. She also believes that access to the Dynamo's facilities gives the Dash a potential advantage over rivals.
"The stadium is so awesome, the staff, everything is so professional and I think that's something that not every NWSL team has; definitely if they're not connected to an MLS team they're not going to have a stadium like BBVA. We're so lucky," she said.
Ohai is determined to make sure that the soccer world is watching the Dash closely at the end of the campaign, too. "We definitely want to come in and make a difference in the first year, we want to make it to the playoffs and we want to make it far in the playoffs. I think a lot of people look at an expansion team and kind of just brush it off but I think with this group of players and with Randy and the staff that we have, we have a chance to go really far," she said.
She is certainly not lacking self-belief. Asked whether she felt any pressure given the expectations that are inevitable after her successful college career and high placement in the draft, she said: "It makes me feel confident and excited. I'm ready." For real.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.