May 11, 2008
By Charles Cuttone
A COMING OUT PARTY
Kai steps into the WNT spotlight
The glimpses have been there before. A great run to create space for a teammate. A quick turn to beat a defender. Even a spectacular goal here and there. But Natasha Kai has always been a prospect not quite ready for that regular spot with the U.S. Women’s National Team.
|Natasha Kai has a new found confidence under head coach Pia Sundhage
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
At least until now. With three goals against Canada at R.F.K. Stadium Saturday night, Kai seems to have solidified her place and finally shown signs of giving fans of the Women’s National Team what they have been waiting to see. The emergence of a real offensive threat. A lethal goalscorer. Someone besides Abby Wambach that the team can rely on to get the big goal when they need it.
In fact, it looks like this year is Kai’s coming out party. In nine games so far, eight of them starts, she has ten goals. That’s almost twice as many as the six she scored in her first two years and 35 games with the National Team.
“I feel like I’ve got more confidence,” said the 24-year old Hawaiian. “My teammates believe in me,” she said.
“I came into camp more fit and with my head screwed on straight,” she said. “This is an Olympic year and we want to win the gold. I am going to be professional about it and do what I have to do to become a good teammate.”
Kai, who has not scored a hat trick since college, when she was a starter with the University of Hawaii, was fearless in going after the ball Saturday against Canada’s normally stingy defense.
“I had no fear at all,” she said of a possible collision with Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod on her first goal, a header on which she challenged the keeper. “I have to put myself in a scoring situation.”
Her limited playing time under former coach Greg Ryan (she appeared in three games in last year’s World Cup, all as a sub), and a health problem earlier this year led Kai to reshape herself.
“Coming in, I had bronchitis in January. It set me back a lot,” she said. “I knew if I wanted to become a part of this team, I had to get myself back into shape, become more of a team player. That has to be me as a professional, making changes.
“When I went home I worked on everything I could to become part of this team.”
The changes in Kai’s game have not gone unnoticed.
“Her attitude was bad and she was not fit,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. “Now she is just a goalscorer, and she will help this team a lot."
Even Wambach, who also needed time to work herself into the team five years ago after showing a lot of promise in the Women’s United Soccer Association, is impressed by her teammate.
“Natasha is a goalscorer,” said Wambach. “She can disappear for minutes on end, but put her inside the 18—she’s deadly.”
The emergence of Kai and other young players, such as Carli Lloyd and Lindsey Tarpley, and Sundhage’s approach to the game have radically changed the style of the U.S. team.
“In the past, Kristine Lilly and myself were the dominant goalscorers,” said Wambach, who had three assists Saturday. “It was easier to beat us.”
Even with the changes in her game, Kai’s effervescent personality and “dare to be different” attitude show through. Already known for her numerous tattoos, Kai vowed not to get a new one to honor the hat trick. But still, after every goal, she showed off a joyous celebration. And, of course, there are the shoes.
Saturday’s hat trick was scored with a yellow boot on the right foot and a red one on the left.
“That’s my style, I like to be different.”