Outstanding performances with the U.S. Under-23 Women's National Team in Spain last year led to an unexpected move for Stephanie Ochs.
The forward was named MVP of the Four Nations Tournament, producing two goals and three assists as Randy Waldrum's team won the competition by beating England, Sweden and Norway. A scout from Australia took notice and offered Ochs the chance to play Down Under after the NWSL season.
Once the Washington Spirit's campaign was finished, Ochs flew to the Australian capital to play for Canberra United Women in the W-League. The Spirit had finished bottom of the NWSL but Canberra came top of the W-League, only to lose in the playoff semifinals. By then the 23-year-old knew that she would not be returning to the Spirit in 2014.
Ochs found out in January via a Skype call with the Spirit head coach that she had been traded to the expansion Houston Dash, reuniting her with Waldrum and ex-Spirit teammates Tiffany McCarty and Kika Toulouse. "She's done well and I knew when I took the job she was one of the players I wanted to get," Waldrum told HoustonDashSoccer.com.
"At first it didn't look like it was going to work out because she was still with Washington but then we ended up getting a player in the draft, Danesha Adams, that they wanted and I was willing to say I'll give Danesha up for Steph, more based on familiarity than anything else. So we were able to make the trade and I was really excited about that when we got her."
Ochs admits to being stunned by the sudden news but says she has quickly adjusted to life with a new team in an new city. "I was a bit shocked but I think it's worked out for the better," she told HoustonDashSoccer.com.
Ochs felt some trepidation about the move to Canberra, as it plunged her into an unfamiliar environment far from home and straight after her first season as a professional. She ended up loving her time in Australia, where she let loose her adventurous side, going skydiving and climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge. And seeing "kangaroos everywhere."
Overall it was a valuable learning experience. "Going to a new environment and having to adjust not only to a new team but a different culture, all these different things…," she said. "Being able to do that and thrive has helped me as a person and a player. I think it was really good for me."
Ochs went to college at the University of San Diego in the city that's also her hometown. She was drafted third overall by the Boston Breakers in the 2012 WPS College Draft but the league folded before she got the chance to make an appearance. She spent that year with the Western New York Flash, who won the WPSL Elite title. Then Washington selected her with the first overall pick of the 2013 NWSL Supplemental Draft.
Ochs was a regular for the Spirit, scoring once for a team that won three of its 22 fixtures. "That season just made all of us stronger as player, as a team and as individuals. We went through a lot but we came out of it learning a lot about how to stay strong in different types of situations. It was also just good to be in a professional atmosphere. Technically that was my first professional year so it was good to get that under my belt and come in again having that experience," she said.
"I think I learned how to play against tougher players, in the pro league it's a different level so it was good for me to get my bearings. Being able to do that last year I think is going to help me this year."
Waldrum has constructed the Dash roster with variety up front in mind. "Rafaelle Souza, the Brazilian who's back at school right now, she's big, she's athletic but she's a little bit more creative, a back-to-the-goal type player, while Stephanie and Kealia [Ohai] and Tiffany are very good at running at you and using their speed," he said.
"So we want a little bit of a variation. Ella Masar up front is a different type of player, better with her back to the goal. So I think we've got a good blend with those five forwards, players we can mix and match a bit to give something different."
The head coach believes that Ochs has great potential. "I'd like to see her production be more than what it was last year but I think around a different group of players and the kind of team we have, I think she'll thrive for us," he said. "She's come in her sharp, she's fit, she's ready to go."
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.