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A USA Soccer Star Opens Up about the Women’s World Cup

GP writer Tucker Bowe talks with USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara ahead of this summer’s biggest sporting event: the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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On June 8, the USA will play their first match of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. And, fingers crossed, they’ll be playing in the final on July 5. Ahead of the biggest event in the history of women’s sports, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) met with journalists at the team’s Media Day in New York City. Amid the frenzy, I sat down with Kelley O’Hara, who proved to be a calming presence.

O’Hara, a 26-year-old Georgia native, is no stranger to the national spotlight. She was a four-year starter at Stanford University, winning the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s award for the nation’s best player, her senior year. When she broke into the USWNT in 2010, then-coach Pia Sundhage switched her from striker to outside defensive back, where she’s since thrived.

After playing in just one match at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, O’Hara was one of three USWNT players to feature in every single minute of the 2012 London Olympics. That team won Gold. To date, O’Hara has tallied 60 appearances for the USWNT and, as an Under Armour sponsored athlete, has become one of the more recognizable players on the team. Although it looks as if she’ll start the tournament on the bench, with coach Ellis preferring Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger at outside back, O’Hara will be an integral part of this team if they’re to claim their first World Cup in 16 years.

Q. In 2012 you played every minute for the USWNT during the Olympics, but now we’ve seen more competition within the defense. How do you see your role on the team going into this World Cup?
A. I’m going to play whatever role Jill [Ellis] asks of me. I have the experience and I have, I guess, the talent to do whatever she needs, if that’s outside [defensive] back or that’s outside [midfield], and I’m just excited to be able play and represent my country and help my teammates however I’m asked to do.

Q. You can play on the left or the right side of the defense. Which side are you more comfortable on?
A. Honestly either. The coach tells me “you’re on the right” or “you’re on the left”, and then I kind of look down at my feet and try to figure it out [laughs]. Sometimes I go over to the left side and one of my teammates is like “you’re on the right”. It’s a little funny, but I just feel at home on both sides.

This team isn’t about an individual person. It’s about the main goal, the team goal, and that’s winning the World Cup.

Q. For the average sports fan, who maybe doesn’t know a lot about women’s soccer, sell the Women’s World Cup. Why should they watch it?
A. It’s a beautiful game, you know? It’s the world’s game and I say we play it a little bit differently than the men, but we play it pretty beautifully as well. I mean it’s exciting and there’s a lot of amazing teams out there and the competition’s really good.

Q. With the start of the World Cup in less than two weeks, how does your diet and training change closing in on the tournament? Are you pretty strict, counting calories and stuff like that?
A. No [laughs]. No. We’re basically…we have the assistance if we need it, in terms of diet and that sort of thing, but I think most people know what they need to eat and take care of their bodies. But yeah, I would say I eat pretty clean most of the time, sometimes I go on some binges, but I feel like I’ve been pretty singularly focused on this World Cup for a couple of months now, at least, in terms of diet, fitness and that sort of thing. And so not much is changing now that it’s two weeks out.

Q. When you say binge, what are you cheating on?
A. Like cookies [laughs], I mean I eat those every day, well not every day, but I eat them and don’t worry about it. Sometimes I just don’t eat as clean as I can, like vegetables and protein. So doughnuts, cookies, any type of sweets basically.

Q. Growing up you were a multi-sport athlete, correct?
A. Yep.

Q. Can you talk about the benefits of that?
A. Yeah, I played all different types of sports until I was 15. I didn’t solely focus on soccer until I was like 15 or 16. So I think it’s the best way to do it, just play as many sports as possible and eventually find one that you love and focus on that, because I don’t think you can replace the skill sets that you learn from other sports.

Q. As a player on the USWNT, do you consider yourself a role model? How does that affect you?
A. I mean, it’s funny because sometimes I think: “Am I a role model?”, but then I am, and I have to just acknowledge that, accept it and kind of embrace it. I still kind of see myself as looking at other people and being inspired by them, but the fact that we have the opportunity to be women in the spotlight and to have an impact on younger girls is just an incredible thing. And I feel lucky to be able to do that because I remember being their age. I still feel young and like I said being inspired by other people. And if I can get girls to follow their dreams, not only just athletically, but in life, and not feel like they’re at a disadvantage because of their gender, I think that’s exceptional.

Q. Eight more teams will be competing at this year’s World Cup than in past competitions. It means that the US (and every other team) will have to play an added knockout game to advance. Do you see that as a positive?
A. I think it’s positive because I think that if there’s an opportunity to have more countries be able to put together a women’s team to take to the World Cup, that means that the women’s game is expanding internationally. And that is huge. And that’s important to me because, obviously playing for the US is an incredible honor and a privilege because we have such an amazing program, but there are a lot of countries around the world that are still developing their women’s programs, and the more the better, I say.

Q. Compared to past teams under Pia [Sundhage], is there a difference in what they’re asking outside defensive backs to do, in terms of attacking or being more defensive?
A. Not really. I think that with Pia, we played a pretty attacking style in terms of outside back. So I would say it’s pretty similar. We’re asked to attack a lot, but our number one priority is to defend.

Q. Who’s a player not on the USWNT that audiences should look out for? After all, there’s going to be a ton of games on, and the USA won’t be playing in all of them.
A. I mean obviously Marta, she has always been such an amazing player and is one of the top players at every tournament… I don’t even know how many World Cups she’s been to. But yeah I don’t think the US has necessarily seen a lot of her since she hasn’t played here domestically in a couple of years because she played WPS. So I think people will be excited to see her play again, and she’s always up for doing big things. You never know what you’re going to get. But she is usually turning out big, big games.

I mean, it’s funny because sometimes I think: “Am I a role model?”, but then I am, and I have to just acknowledge that, accept it and kind of embrace it.

Q. What’s the appeal for a US player to play in the NWSL, instead of going over and playing Europe and playing in the Champions League? Can you talk about your decision to grow for this American League?
A. Okay, so I’ve never personally played abroad, and I’ve always played here in the US. And I find the benefit of playing here is that we don’t necessarily have the Champions League to aspire to, but at the end of the day in this league (NWSL) you’re not going to find that many blowout games. And I think a lot of leagues overseas, they’re at the top three or four teams and then everyone below that, if the top team is playing somebody below that, you know, fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth, it could be a 9-0 game and you’re never going to get that here in the NWSL. And I think that’s what makes this league so strong. Players want to come play here to develop because every single week you have to show up for your game. There’s no easy game, you can’t take a week off. So I think that’s a huge benefit.

Q. There’s a lot of similarities between Christen Press’s career path and yours. Obviously you both went to Stanford, both won the Hermann Trophy as attackers, but you, being a few years older, broke out on the national team before her.
A. I’m also older.

Q. But now as an established defender, do you ever look at her rise, being an attacker that’s doing well in the national team, and think, “I can do that”? Do you ever get the bug to play attack again?
A. Yeah, I know my role and at the end of the day, if Jill [Ellis] asked me to play forward I’d say, “okay”; if Jill asked me to play center, I’d say, “okay”. So it’s about what the coach wants. This team isn’t about an individual person. It’s about the main goal, the team goal, and that’s winning the World Cup. So whatever the coach asks, that’s what I’m going to do.

Q. In terms of chemistry and camaraderie, how’s this group of women different from the USWNT teams that played in the 2011 World Cup team and the 2012 Olympics?
A. I don’t think it’s that different. I think throughout the years that I’ve been on the team, the team has stayed close. You do have new players coming in and older players leaving and that’s a constant throughout time. But at the end of the day, the players that come in learn what this environment is about, and the type of people and players we want to be, and the environment we want to foster as a group. So I think that it’s a pretty consistent vibe.

Q. With this World Cup being in Canada, and obviously spread out amongst the whole country, how is it going to be different from when it was in, say, Germany in 2011?
A. It’s a lot more traveling. So I mean getting on a plane and traveling four hours is a lot harder than getting on a bus and driving two. So that’s going to be, I think, the biggest obstacle in terms of the difference between Germany and Canada. So Germany is a much smaller country than Canada so that would be something that we got to be ready for.

Q. In terms of downtime during the tournament, when you’re not playing soccer, are you looking forward to doing anything in Canada? Is there sightseeing, or are you single minded and just soccer?
A. Yeah, sometimes we get to do, like, fun things. The coaches or the staff will set up a fun day, we golfed in England…but I don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity to do that. Like I said, it’s a lot of travel. So our main concern and focus is winning the World Cup. For me, my downtime usually consists of binge watching TV shows, playing Settlers of Catan, and just relaxing.

Q. What do you do to train besides soccer and besides running?
A. Surfing for me is a very calming experience. It centers me, it, like, brings me back to my zen zone, if you will. I just love to be in the water as much as I can. I think it’s really important to have a good mental state in this environment, because it’s super stressful and uber competitive, and there’s a lot of outside factors, but when I surf it’s like, I chill out, relax, don’t worry about anything else, can’t have your phone on you — it’s just you and the ocean, and it’s really nice. I really enjoy playing tennis, I’ve gotten back into that recently so I love doing that. I paddleboard when I’m at home, like, on the lakes in Georgia and doing that sort of thing. So yeah, it’s mainly just soccer and lifting and running, but when I can I like to do other activities.

Q. Do you follow the EPL (English Premier League)?
A. I do.

Q. Who’s your team?
A. I don’t have a team. I really just enjoy getting up on a Saturday and getting coffee and watching the game — and having a doughnut.

Q. So who do you root against if you don’t have a team?
A. I don’t root against anybody to be honest. I guess if it’s close in the table [the EPL standings] I’d want to see the underdog win, that sort of thing. But I just enjoy watching the different styles and different players.

Q. What about a favorite player?
A. I mean, I like Dani Alves (Defender for FC Barcelona) because he’s like…

Q. He’s not in the EPL though…
A. No, no I know, but you said favorite player. But I just enjoy good soccer and just watching.

Q. Touché. With the Women’s World Cup, give me some predictions. Who’s going to win the Golden Boot? Breakout player? Who should we look to watch?
A. Okay. Hope [Solo]’s going to win Golden Glove, Alex [Morgan] is going to win Golden Boot, [Christen] Press is going to win the breakout star, and Abby’s going to win, like, all-tournament player.

Q. Who’s the player on this team who has impressed you the most, maybe someone you haven’t played with, or maybe against in the NWSL, that you’ve been really impressed coming into this tournament?
A. I’ve been really impressed with Morgan Brian. She just came out of college, at UVA, and she’s a younger player, and just watching her transition from college into the national team… It was stressful and it was hard; she had a lot on her plate up until this past December when she was still playing for college. So I’ve been really proud of her and really impressed with the way she’s handled everything and the opportunities she’s taken advantage of, and her play has just grown tremendously over the short amount of time that I’ve gotten to play with her.

Q. Do you think she’s best as the defensive midfielder or attacking midfielder?
A. I think she’d say attacking and I would as well. And I think that’s kind of her style.

Q. Who’s been one of the hardest-working players you’ve seen, besides yourself?
A. Hayo [Heather O’Reilly]. She’s always working hard. That is her whole thing. I mean obviously she’s an amazing player, but she just comes to practice and she brings it. Sometimes when I’m not feeling it, she’ll look at me like, “you’re bringing it today”, and that’s all I need.

Q. All 23 players in this team have started in a game at some time in their career. How important is that, going into this World Cup?
A. I think it’s just a testament to how deep our roster is. It’s the best roster we’ve had going into any World Cup ever. And it gives me a lot of confidence that whoever Jill [Ellis] starts and whoever she brings in off the bench is going to get the job done.

Why You Have to Watch the Women’s World Cup

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The 2015 Women’s World Cup will be the biggest sporting event of the summer, breaking all kinds of television records. And the Americans are favorites. Click here to read this story.

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