In year one, no one expects your team to be good. You are an expansion team, and up against your more established competition, it's not unusual that you wouldn't do as well. Your roster is mostly made up of fresh start seekers, locker room troublemakers and medium talents on big teams who you're hoping will be big talents on your medium team. Maybe you get a solid rookie or two, or discover someone from somewhere else, but mostly you're cobbled together from spare parts, and you spend much of your inaugural season just trying to be something that's respectable. A solid base for next season, building for the future.
In the NWSL, this divide between expansion team and established club is not, for now, so wide. A team like Orlando can come into the league and be, at most, just three years behind the competition. Four years ago, everyone was a new team, or at least a new version of an old team. As the 10th squad in a previously nine-team league, there's still plenty of talent to be had -- there just weren't enough roster spots for it all before.
This divide was even smaller in 2014, when the Houston Dash played its first NWSL season. Then, the league was just a year old, the Dash just a year behind the competition. Houston, with a nice stadium, MLS ties, a coach with a good college pedigree and the extra help that national team allocations provided, were not immediately good, of course. But the team also had the building blocks for being good soon, in place almost immediately.
Maybe the biggest of those building blocks was the player that the Dash got with their first-ever draft pick. As an expansion team, and thanks to the NWSL's view on rules as things that are hardly hard and fast, Houston ended up with the second overall pick in a draft class that included Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai and Julie Johnston. Dunn, of course, went first, to a Washington Spirit team that had finished the 2013 season dead last. Johnston went third, to the Red Stars. And Ohai went second, to Houston.
Ohai and Dunn had played together both at North Carolina and on the U.S. U-20 team that won the World Cup in 2012. But starting with that NWSL draft, the two long-time teammates saw their careers suddenly go in very different directions.
Dunn joined a Spirit team that was in the midst of rebuilding following that pretty terrible 2013 season. Washington already had many of the pieces in place, and while the weight of being the No. 1 pick required that Dunn be a contributor in some way, it never seemed like a part of the Spirit's plan that she be the contributor, or the one solely responsible for turning things around. And Dunn didn't have a great rookie season. A year later, she'd be the league MVP and Golden Boot winner, but in 2014, Crystal Dunn didn't score a single goal.
Things for Ohai were very different. Houston had been allocated just three players, one each from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and none were particularly well-known. The Mexican allocation was Teresa Noyola. Born in Mexico City and raised in California, Noyola had played in the U.S.'s youth programs before joining the Mexico WNT in 2010. Canadian allocation Melissa Tancredi had been a long-time member of her national team, but had played professionally in the U.S. only briefly, as a member of the St. Louis Athletica for the 2009 season -- and Houston traded Tancredi to Chicago less than a week after the allocations were announced. The U.S. allocation was Whitney Engen, who'd only recently really started to break into USWNT lineups, and who'd bounced around several club teams in both the U.S. and Europe before coming to Houston. All that made Ohai, almost immediately, the first real public face of the Dash off the field, and the one that so much of the future of the team on the field would be based on and built around.
Ohai, for her part, was Houston's co-leading scorer in her rookie season, with four goals in 23 games. But Houston was, as a whole, just not very good. Like, the kind of not very good where the season that the team above you in the table had is something to aspire to and that team is also Boston.
Ohai had been a standout player at UNC, scoring 40 goals and registering 27 assists as a four-year starter. She'd been equally impressive for the U-20s, capping her career there with the game-winner in the World Cup final. And she'd also done all that while being legally blind in one eye. But UNC is a dynasty and U.S. youth teams are a part of this larger powerhouse program. Houston was a team with no real history, now save for one losing season.
When Ohai returned to Houston for the 2015 season, it was to a Dash team that looked markedly different from the one that had finished the year before with only five wins. Carli Lloyd had been traded to the Dash from Western NY in exchange for Engen, Becky Edwards and a draft pick. Jessica McDonald had been acquired in a trade with Portland. Canada's Allysha Chapman was allocated to Houston. Finally, the Dash had selected Morgan Brian as the first overall pick in the college draft.
The problem for Houston though, was that with the World Cup looming, Lloyd, Brian and Meghan Klingenberg, as well as Chapman and goalkeeper Erin McLeod, were set to miss significant time. That left a lot of whatever was going to happen to the Dash to again fall squarely on Ohai's shoulders. And again Ohai delivered, scoring four goals and helping Houston to a fifth-place finish. In a year, the Dash had gone from last place to four points shy of a playoff spot.
When we talk about the best players in the league not going to the World Cup or Olympics, it's usually the same names that get thrown around. Usually, they're very good international players from national teams that either aren't very good or just failed to qualify for some other more complicated reason. We talk a lot about players like Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, Nadia Nadim, and now, Natasha Dowie. None of those players are American, and it's rare that the ones we talk about this way are, because right or wrong, we assume that the best Americans are obviously the ones on the USWNT. If the other ones were good, they'd be there, too. Dunn in 2015 is the exception, and when we talked about Dunn then, words like "snub" or "mistake" were never far behind. And of course, a year removed from "Jill Ellis Made a Mistake With Her Crystal Dunn Snub," Dunn was very much a part of the team that went to Rio and did whatever that was.
Ohai though, has never really been mentioned in this context. I'm not even talking about the thing where we fight on Twitter forever and ever about whether she, or the lady you played pick-up with, or any of the other 50 fifty trillion women playing soccer in this country, deserve to be called into a USWNT camp. I'm just talking about the other thing, the best players in the league thing.
Ohai has proven this season that she deserves to be in that conversation, at the very least. In another year where the Dash have been only mediocre, and in another year where rosters have been ravaged by a major tournament, Ohai has been a standout. She is the team's leading scorer, with seven goals, including two in Houston's win in Boston on Wednesday night. And with four games to play, she's just one goal shy of league scoring leader Lynn Williams. Ohai also has three assists, which means she's been involved in 10 of Houston's goals this season. They've only scored 15 as a team. Ohai, now the Dash's captain, is also the only player on the entire Houston roster who's appeared in all 16 games this season.
Houston will be, in all likelihood, eliminated from playoff contention this weekend. Maybe because of that, because Ohai's contributions are for a team that's destined only for another year of disappointment, we haven't noticed them as much. But maybe it's time we started to notice, because Kealia Ohai, three years removed from landing in Houston as the team's public face and first great hope, is having not just the best season of her career, but one of the best seasons of anyone in the league.
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