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Doing the thing and doing it well: the Kelley O’Hara Story

Kelley O’Hara is doing the defender thing, and dang it if she isn’t doing it well.

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Kelley O’Hara is a defender.

I’ve been told countless times that she is a converted defender and sure if you want to label her like that, go ahead. But in the year 2019 she is a defender plus or minus a modifier on the front. That still makes her a defender.

And in this World Cup, she has delivered on that label.

No, she is not everyone’s idea of what a right back should be. She still drives forward and gets involved in the attack in a way that realizes on her speed to make up for it when the other team gets the ball. She still goes in for challenges she should have cut off before she needed to go to ground with some much tenacity. She still slips toward an attacker first and defense second mentality more than an Ali Krieger or a Casey Short or even a Becca Moros would.

Some of that is on O’Hara and just how she plays soccer. She tackles hard, knows she is likely to have the speed to catch a player and is always confident in herself on the field.

Some of that is on Jill Ellis and how she asks her outside backs to play. Ellis asks every player on the pitch, outside of maybe Naeher and Sauerbrunn, to attack. To bomb forward when they can and to get the ball where they need to get it.

Sometimes it works so well. Style meets a player who can play that style well. Against England O’Hara struck the cross that landed on the head of Christen Press for the opening goal. Sometimes it gives the attacking players on the other side of the ball too much space to work with and you can see before the players do the possibility for disaster.

I wish the US played more like Utah when it came to O’Hara. The 3 and a half back as I like to call it. When O’Hara pushes up, and she does a lot for Utah though less than for the US, the backline shifts over and Corsie, Sauerbrunn and whomever is playing left back will shift into a three back. O’Hara is then free to attack as she wants knowing that the backline has it more of less covered. When the attack for the other team heats up she is able to slid back and a more normal four back is played.

I wish the USWNT played this style. One, because it would make my heart rate and blood pressure stay in more normal areas. Two, because it would feed in to the talents on the players in a way that two-back, where both outside backs push up impossibly high, or the five-back, where they have everyone on the backline forever, y’all, just don’t.

There are some that lament the goal scoring machine that O’Hara was in her Stanford days is no longer an attacker. And if not asked in 2012 to convert she may have ended up a Shea Groom run-through-fire-for-her-team attacker who did well enough for herself.

But Pia Sundhage saw in her — maybe a little desperate for a defender because of Ali Krieger’s ACL injury earlier in the year — the chance to turn a really good attacker into a world class defender. Pia turned to Hope Solo and Christie Piece to help O’Hara in 2012 move from the wing to the left back spot and O’Hara herself put in the work to make the conversation happen. She was a little rough, a ride a little bumpy but what wasn’t with that 2012 defense?

I don’t think O’Hara hits 100 caps if she stayed an attacker for the USWNT. I don’t think in a generation where her Stanford teammate, Christen Press, is seen as somehow second string, O’Hara finds the pitch enough to show why she should be in the attack too. The change from an attacker who can get back on defense to a defender who can help in the attack has given O’Hara one of the most successful careers as a defender the USWNT has seen.

10 years ago Kelley O’Hara was one of the brightest young attackers in the US system.

Two days from now she is going to be starting a World Cup final as the USWNT’s right back.

Sometimes we don’t know what is going to happen in sports. One tackle can change a career. Ali Krieger’s ACL injury didn’t end her career, but it did ended up giving the USWNT a world-class outside back in Kelley O’Hara.