Kealia Ohai finally gets shot to play with U.S. women's team

Kealia Ohai is hoping to turn a call-up cameo with the U.S. women's national team into a recurring role en route to the 2019 World Cup. Trask Smith/CSM

HOUSTON -- If limitations set the terms of living for Kealia Ohai, she wouldn't be in her home state of Utah this week wearing a United States women's national team uniform.

Nearly blind in her right eye since childhood, she would be among the countless many left to wonder if they might have succeeded if not for some obstacle that proved impassable. Instead, the 24-year-old is among a very few, one of the new faces on the U.S. roster for a pair of games against Switzerland.

The limitations of her vision never obscured the limitlessness of what she envisioned possible.

Those are the terms she set. So if there are people who wonder if Ohai scores enough goals or if her skills are enough to reach the international level, fair enough. Such questions are reasonable.

Hell, even the coach who named her to this roster did so with a cautious endorsement.

It's just that Ohai wouldn't be here if she looked at the world that way.

"I can feel they didn't think I would ever get called in, or it's probably not going to happen for me," Ohai said of well-meaning observers, let alone the outright skeptics. "That [the window of opportunity] has passed. But it has never really bothered me. I knew from my whole career that I would get a chance with the national team if I just kept going.

"Now it's up to me to make the team."

Ohai was a prized recruit for the University of North Carolina, one of the most prolific dynasties in college sports. She not only won an NCAA title with the Tar Heels, but did so in the same year in which she scored the winning goal for the United States in the 2012 FIFA Under-20 World Cup. She was the second pick in the 2014 NWSL draft, the first ever by the expansion Houston Dash.

Yet that rapid ascent made it all the more noticeable when the momentum appeared to halt the past few years.

The Dash played 64 games in their first three seasons and won just 17. While far from an abject organizational failure, mediocrity is mediocrity even when it is also the normal growing pain of expansion. It cast a long shadow Ohai couldn't escape with modest numbers: eight goals and six assists in 42 appearances during the first two of those seasons.

Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston, Ohai's teammates on that U.S. U-20 team, were starters on the senior team that won a World Cup three years later. Crystal Dunn, who set up Ohai's goal in the U-20 final, missed out on the 2015 glory but answered that omission with an MVP season in the NWSL and a place on the U.S. Olympic roster (as did U-20 alum Samantha Mewis).

Yet each time a training camp neared for the senior team in recent years, Ohai waited for the phone call that would signal her inclusion. That call didn't come.

"She would get really, really down about it," said Megan Cushing, Ohai's older sister who also lives in Houston and won an NCAA championship as a player at Southern California. "We just felt like when is this going to come? But the coolest part about all of it is now I feel like she's at a point where she's really ready for it. It could have happened earlier and she might not have been ready. And sometimes if you get called in and don't perform, that was your one shot. Now I feel like she is really at a point in her career where she is peaking."

In the 2016 NWSL season, Ohai tied for the league lead with 11 goals and added four assists, playing a direct role in almost half of the total goals accumulated by a team that for the first time didn't concede more than it allowed in a season. Statistical production has often been the crux of the debate about Ohai, at least since scoring more than 120 goals in high school. She scored 40 in 86 games at UNC, tied for 19th in program history. She scored twice while averaging more than 80 minutes per game in the 2012 U-20 World Cup.

While the NWSL goals this season were evidence of her development, they were also the bells and whistles necessary to get people to notice the talent.

"If you want to play or if you want someone to notice you or you want to get called in, you have to score goals," Ohai said. "Whereas for a defensive player, there's not really a benchmark. It's very based on whether they think you're good or not.

"It is difficult when you're not scoring and you're playing great. But at the same time, it provides something, kind of a standard where you score all these goals and you deserve a chance."

Indeed, it was enough to earn a fresh look from U.S. coach Jill Ellis, by her own admission less than wowed when Ohai, at the time with the U-23 team, trained with the senior team in 2014.

"I saw her in there and she didn't perform very well," Ellis said. "So I kind of had an early look at her and I think the message was, 'You've got to stand out in [the NWSL] environment.' ... I think she has completely benefitted from having the league, having these opportunities to go against good players and prove her worth. She's very deserving of a look."

While Ohai acknowledges the lack of vision in her right eye has on-field ramifications -- it is difficult to track a ball over that shoulder and the diminished depth perception affects the precision of her finishing -- it is also almost an afterthought. Friends sometimes tease her for squinting. She gets headaches in settings that strain her eyes, like long travel days or watching a game from afar in a stadium. But she insists it wasn't fear, conscious or otherwise in hindsight, that kept her from talking publicly about her vision until an interview with the student paper late in her time at North Carolina.

Limitations just weren't something she thought much about.

"My depth perception is pretty off," Ohai said. "A lot of people would say they don't like to drive with me at nighttime because at night it's pretty bad. But it's nothing like I'm tripping over things. I think because I was so young when it happened, I kind of figured out how to live with it."

Therein lies the difference between an experience that shaped her rather than defined her.

No more when kids teased her in elementary school about the patch she had to wear over her good eye than when the phone didn't ring the past few years.

Let others talk about what you can't do. Let them worry about limits.

"She knows that she is special and she's been blessed," Cushing said. "So we just kind of roll with it."