Nerves would have been normal as Osinachi Ohale took the field for the Houston Dash last Saturday. Not only was it the Dash's first-ever NWSL match but the opponents were the reigning champions, Portland Thorns FC.
What's more, the 21-year-old had only been in the United States for two weeks, having arrived for a trial with the Dash from her native Nigeria. Yet the center back delivered a composed, solid performance as Houston restricted Portland's much-vaunted attack to a handful of chances and only one goal.
Dash head coach Randy Waldrum was not surprised that Ohale looked comfortable at BBVA Compass Stadium, because he remembers how as a teenager she coped admirably on the biggest stage in the women's game.
"I saw her at the World Cup in Germany, I was a little bit familiar with her," he told HoustonDashSoccer.com. So when injuries and absences left the Dash shorthanded in defense on the eve of their debut season, Waldrum seized the opportunity to bring Ohale over from Africa.
Nigeria are regularly one of the continent's strongest teams, having qualified for all six previous Women's World Cup tournaments. But only once have they progressed beyond the group stage. The 2011 competition in Germany conformed to the norm as the Super Falcons finished third in a tough group—behind the host nation and France but ahead of Canada, who will host next year's finals.
Still, it was an invaluable experience for Ohale, who played every minute of her team's three fixtures, including a 1-0 defeat to Germany in front of 48,817 fans in Frankfurt. "Playing at home was a plus for them because they had the crowd with them," she told HoustonDashSoccer.com. "It was a very tough, hard game. We did our best but it was hard to play against a highly-experienced team with players like Birgit Prinz."
Nigeria also lost 1-0 to France but beat Canada by the same scoreline in their final group match to end the tournament on a positive note. That Canada team contained the prolific striker Christine Sinclair, who played for the Thorns last Saturday, while Dash goalkeeper and captain Erin McLeod was among the substitutes.
"She did a good job with Sinclair," Waldrum said of Ohale's efforts last weekend. "I didn't feel like this would be intimidating to her at all and it wasn't. She's got experience, even as young as she is. And her physicality—she's not afraid to tackle, she's got great speed. I think she's only going to get stronger because she's still really young."
Reflecting on the match this week at a windswept Houston Sports Park, Ohale said she enjoyed the evening despite the 1-0 loss. "It was good, I really enjoyed myself and the team had a very good game. And for my first game in the pros here I give myself some credit also," she said. "From what I saw last weekend it's a high standard and we hope to keep it up."
Ohale was born in the city of Owerri, in southern Nigeria. She previously played for Delta Queens, the Nigerian Women's Premier League title-winners in 2011 and 2012. When she first heard about the possibility of a switch to the U.S., she assumed it would be at the college level. Instead, she finds herself on a professional team and living what she called the "U.S. dream" in a country that is completely unfamiliar.
Ohale had long been eager to try her luck abroad but always assumed she would get her chance in Europe, where a move to Sweden had previously fallen through. "I've never been in the U.S. before, this is my first time being here. When I got here I was happy with the way the players I've met received me, they're happy for me and encouraged me," she said.
"I'm here now and it's like a dream come true. I've been praying for this since I played in the Under-20 World Cup, I've been praying to play abroad, so I'm happy to be here. The facilities, the standards, everything is good here."
Ohale struck up a quick rapport at the heart of the back line against Portland with Holly Hein, another trialist who earned a starting job. Despite the positive performance there was bad news on the injury front, as it was confirmed this week that midfielder Brittany Bock suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in the game and will be out for the season. Forward Kealia Ohai has a sprained ankle picked up during the match.
The Dash will seek their first goals and points away to the Boston Breakers on Sunday. Another NWSL road match against Seattle Reign FC follows on April 27 before the Dash return to BBVA Compass Stadium on May 3 to host FC Kansas City.
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.