Age just a number for Kelley O'Hara and U.S. women's soccer
CARY, N.C. -- Kelley O'Hara is part of that generation whose stories intertwine with their coach's. O'Hara was still shredding defenses for Stanford when Jill Ellis coached UCLA. Their paths crossed on youth national teams and when O'Hara was new to the U.S. women's national team. That shared history helps the coach understand the person and know that O'Hara can process criticism, no matter how bluntly delivered, without flinching.
But it wasn't a concern about errant passing that Ellis wanted to point out when she pulled O'Hara aside after the player returned from a six-month absence due to a hamstring injury.
"We've missed you here," Ellis recalled telling O'Hara during a recent training.
Now 30 years old and likely to make her 110th appearance for the United States on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET) in its final group game against Trinidad and Tobago in the CONCACAF Women's Championship, O'Hara remains a reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. That is why she was on the field to score a goal as an attacking substitute in the 2015 World Cup semifinal against Germany, with Ellis won over by how hard O'Hara played in otherwise monotonous reserve training throughout that event.
And that is why, despite her own injury purgatory this year and the national team's casting call over the past two years, O'Hara remains the first-choice starter at right back entering the World Cup.
"I just know she's a player that brings a consistency in her energy and her focus and her intensity," Ellis said. "She kind of embodies a lot of the qualities that are this program, in terms of competitiveness -- even if I sometimes used to grimace a little bit in training when she's hammering the s--- out of her own teammates. ...
"I've always found her to be somebody who put the team first. That's who she is."
O'Hara also embodies one of the challenges for this team over the next nine months: keeping veteran bodies healthy for the grind of what the United States hopes will be a seven-game stay in France. O'Hara's absence this year only underscored her value. The same could be said of Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn in absences of varying lengths the past two years. As much as those absences created opportunities for the likes of Tierna Davidson and Rose Lavelle, the roster upheaval of the past two years confirmed this team's veteran core.
This is a remade team, but it isn't a young team. The average age of the starting lineup against Mexico last week was the same as that of the starting lineup in the 2015 World Cup final.
The point of the past two years was to see who was left standing, 100 caps or 10 caps.
"When you go through that process and you're looking now at other pieces -- and obviously she was hurt for quite a while this year -- you look under other stones and look around at other pieces," Ellis said in regard to O'Hara. "But what I know about Kelley and who she is innately, it doesn't surprise me that she's still a very important piece of this team."
Davidson, currently missing after being on the wrong end of a hard tackle in her college season, and Lavelle, previously unavailable for a long stretch because of hamstring woes, also point to the reality that injuries don't spare the young. But certainly a life spent on the soccer field takes a progressive toll on most bodies, whether that involves an actual breakdown and injury or just the time it takes after a game to feel ready to play again. In O'Hara's case, a left hamstring strain limited her to eight appearances in the NWSL season and kept her out of the U.S. lineup all summer, even as the auditions at outside back continued.
Even now, without going into specifics, she described "lingering" issues as she begins to feel like her old self again.
"It demands a lot of patience, and it's not easy," O'Hara said. "I am a very happy-go-lucky person, but injury and rehab and being away from the game and the doubt and uncertainty that comes with those sort of things is probably the hardest part of the job or one of them. So it has been a less than ideal year. I'm trying to take the positives from it and enjoy when I do feel good."
It is entirely possible that the starting lineup in a hypothetical World Cup opener could feature five players in their 30s and a sixth, Alex Morgan, in the final month of her 20s. All have more than 100 appearances. All have juggled those responsibilities with the NWSL schedule for the past five seasons, more of a sustained dual commitment than any previous U.S. World Cup team faced.
This is all the more a concern because of the way the United States intends to play, with its aggressive, pressing style that is demanding on the body. It is why depth is so important. And it is why Ellis said she already challenged strength and fitness coach Dawn Scott to come up with a training plan for the short winter break that will make the roster the fittest it has ever been -- no small feat when the U.S. women are already regularly portrayed as the fittest team in the world.
She's a player that brings a consistency in her energy and her focus and her intensity. She kind of embodies a lot of the qualities that are this program.Jill Ellis on defender Kelley O'Hara
As much as their skill on the field, the United States is counting on players such as Rapinoe, 33, Sauerbrunn, 33, Carli Lloyd, 36, and O'Hara to be world-class when it comes to physical maintenance.
"I try not to even think about what if I was doing all of this when I was younger," Rapinoe chuckled at her own expense this week. "I probably would have been more consistent and better when I was younger. But you don't know until you know. I think as you get older, it just takes so much more off the field. I think some things become easier on the field as well. You know the game better, know yourself better, the team better, etc. But the amount of work, just as you get older, continues to go up every year.
"Sue [Bird] and I sometimes joke that we are basically spending half of our salaries to then go and make next year's salary. We aren't in the million-dollar range like male professional athletes are, to which we say if there is ever an unfit male professional athlete, it's completely their fault. They have the money to have everything. But it does take a lot of work off the field."
In that case, it is literally the price they pay to continue playing for championships. The soreness the morning after games or the frustration and stress of a hamstring strain that won't heal is the figurative price. But there O'Hara was before Sunday's game against Panama, sprinting through warm-up drills and goofing around with teammates, undeterred by the knowledge that she was one of nine starters from the first game who would rest.
The mind is always willing. It's whether the body follows that might determine the fate of the U.S. next year.
"I really do find joy in what I do, like, I love going to work every day, I love going to practice every day," O'Hara said. "As much as this lifestyle is chaotic and hectic and can be sometimes draining emotionally, physically, mentally -- all of those things -- it really is extremely special, and not everyone gets to do it. I know how lucky I am to be able to be a part of this."
Her coach isn't the only one who knows it wouldn't be the same without her. And that is as much a cold-blooded tactical reality as an emotional embrace.