Former Panther Kelley O’Hara returns World Cup champion



Former Panther graduate Kelley O’Hara scored her first international goal for the United States women’s national team on June 30, 2015 against Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup. The goal sealed the trip back to the finals, where the team would win 5-2 over Japan.

Jack Fletcher, Sports Co-Editor

Four years after falling to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final, 2006 Panther graduate Kelley O’Hara and her United States women’s national teammates earned a trip back to the finals once again. It might have been destiny, it might have been luck, but the team got its shot at redemption in the 2015 World Cup against the team that knocked them out last World Cup.

We tried to treat it like a normal game,” O’Hara said. “Everyone knew it was the World Cup final, and there was a little bit of a different energy to it, but I feel like the team was so focused and professional when it comes to game time that we felt confident as a group.”

The game could have been over before it started, as U.S. forward Carli Lloyd recorded the fastest hat trick in World Cup history, and U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday scored in the first 16 minutes en route to a 5-2 victory over Japan.

“All of us were trying to remain calm on the bench,” O’Hara said. “We all knew that it was a long game and that Japan is one of those teams that has the ability to come back from being 4-0 down.”

Her journey to the 2015 World Cup started long before the qualifiers for the tournament. In fact, it comes back to the fields where current Panthers may have played as they were growing up.

“I played rec soccer with my sister and my brother,” O’Hara said. “As a kid, I played a lot of sports, but soccer was probably the first organized sport that I played.”

Kelley O’Hara, who graduated from Starr’s Mill in 2006, made her first international appearance for the United States women’s national team on March 25, 2010. Since then, she has participated in the 2011 World Cup, 2012 Olympics, and 2015 World Cup.
Kelley O’Hara, who graduated from Starr’s Mill in 2006, made her first international appearance for the United States women’s national team on March 25, 2010. Since then, she has participated in the 2011 World Cup, 2012 Olympics, and 2015 World Cup.

O’Hara continued playing and moved up from recreational to travel, playing for local club teams such as Peachtree City Lazers, AFC Lightning and Concorde Fire.

Her experiences with travel soccer shined through in high school, when she became the girls’ soccer team captain for her junior and senior year. O’Hara put everything together her senior season, scoring 20 goals and 16 assists and winning the 2006 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Player of the Year and 2006 Gatorade Georgia State Player of the Year. She was also named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-American player, and her hard work got her a scholarship to Stanford University.

“I always knew playing club soccer and soccer in high school gave me some potential to playing in college,” O’Hara said. “I looked at a bunch of different schools, like UCLA, UNC, Santa Clara, but Stanford was the best fit for me.”

O’Hara immediately made an impact on the collegiate level. She cracked the All-Pac-10 freshman team after starting 14 of 17 games and scored nine goals with two assists. In her sophomore year, she scored nine goals in 18 starts with five assists, and in her junior year, the only regular season game Stanford lost O’Hara didn’t play in because of a concussion suffered in practice.

During O’Hara’s final season, Stanford was the only team in Pac-10 history to go undefeated during the regular season, but they lost the National Championship to UNC after O’Hara picked up a second yellow card in the second half. 

“I ended my career basically getting kicked off the field, so that was really difficult to deal with,” O’Hara said. “One of my goals was to win a National Championship with Stanford and obviously that’s not how it turned out. It’s one of the bigger disappointments in my career to this point.”

O’Hara scored 26 goals with 13 assists her senior year, finishing her college career as the Stanford record holder for goals scored, assists and points. She led the nation in scoring, earning her the Soccer American Player of the Year award and the Hermann Trophy, becoming the first Stanford Cardinal to win the award.

“It’s really cool to be considered one of many great players to play there,” O’Hara said.

Despite her end-of-season disappointment, O’Hara was taken No. 3 overall in the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer draft by FC Gold Pride, a Santa Clara team.

“It was great playing in the Bay Area because the season started while I was still at Stanford,” O’Hara said. “I would wake up in the morning, go to practice then drive back and go to class.”

O’Hara made her mark on the professional world as well, scoring six goals with four assists while starting 16 of 18 games. FC Gold Pride won the regular season championship, securing them a spot in the WPS championship game, all while earning her first minutes as a member of the USWNT, coming in as a sub against Mexico in an international friendly on March 25, 2010.  

“It was a big change from college to professional,” O’Hara said. “It’s a big leap because the style of play and the physicality was so much stronger.”

FC Gold Pride won the championship game 4-0 against the Philadelphia Independence. Although O’Hara picked up a quad injury late in the season, she subbed in and played the last 23 minutes of the game.

However, two months after the championship game, the organization ceased operations because of financial struggles. O’Hara decided to sign with the Boston Breakers on a one-year deal for the 2011 season.

“I chose to go to Boston because quality of life off the field is very important to me,” O’Hara said. “If things aren’t going well on the field, it makes life a lot better if you’re there with friends and you live in a place you enjoy. Boston had good core players and a lot of my friends played on that team, and I always had wanted to play in a city like that.”

O’Hara was also attempting to make the 2011 World Cup team for the USWNT. An injury to international teammate Lindsay Tarpley left a spot open on the final squad, and O’Hara was chosen as her replacement. She played one game, subbing into the team’s final group match against Sweden, but the team fell to Japan in the championship.

After returning from the World Cup, O’Hara and other Boston Breakers returned to finish their season. Boston made the playoffs that season, but lost in the first round to division rival magicJack.

O’Hara scored four goals in 13 appearances. When her contract with Boston ended, she signed a deal with the Atlanta Beat to play for her hometown team, but in February 2012, the league was suspended, and on May 18, the league announced it would be shutting down.

“[To play for Atlanta] was my dream,” O’Hara said. “I was so excited about the opportunity to be close to my family and friends, and people from around Fayette County and Peachtree City could come to games. I wanted to expand the woman’s soccer game. I was really looking forward to that opportunity, and it was pretty heartbreaking when it wasn’t able to come full circle.”

With the WPS folded, there was no women’s soccer league in America, but O’Hara kept herself busy by training to make the 2012 Olympic team. Up to that point in her career, O’Hara had only played forward, but in January 2012, she was asked by USWNT coach Pia Sundhage to switch to play left back, a defensive position, after starter Ali Krieger tore her ACL in the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament.

“Pia came to me and said ‘We need someone to play this position and really your only chance of making the team this year is to play this position and play it well,’” O’Hara said. “I wrote down that my goal was to be the starter in the Olympics. Every day I went to practice and I always had something to work on. It was a big change, maybe more mentally than anything else, but it was good.”

If playing was what O’Hara wanted, then playing was what she got. She started all six games in the Olympics and was one of three USWNT players, along with goalkeeper Hope Solo and captain Christie Rampone, to play every single minute of the tournament. The three finished with 570 minutes, played in six matches and recorded one assist each, which helped them win the gold medal.

“I feel honored that I was able to play every single minute,” O’Hara said. “Christie and Hope are basically legends in the game.”

The international schedule was much lighter during 2013, playing 16 games total and winning the annual Algarve Cup for the ninth time in 14 years. On Oct. 26, 2014, the USWNT won its third straight tournament when the Americans defeated Costa Rica in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament final, securing their spot in the 2015 World Cup. Two months later, the team was drawn into Group D with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria for the summer tournament.

The team faced criticism early in the World Cup because of the low amount of goals scored, but received praise for the defensive prowess the players showed. After allowing a goal in the first half of the group stage opener against Australia, the defense did not allow a goal until nearly 540 minutes of game time later in the World Cup final against Japan, including five shutouts in a row.

“I think that as a team, we just really show up well defensively in tournaments,” O’Hara said. “Everyone wants to win, and I think that we can attribute that to everyone coming together.”

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the World Cup for O’Hara was in the game against Germany, when she scored her first international goal in the 84th minute to put the Americans up 2-0 and the game out of reach for the Germans.

“It was one of the craziest moments of my life,” O’Hara said. “When that goal went in, it really secured our spot in the final. I didn’t even realize that it was my first goal ever with the team until after the game.”

However, it was almost not possible for her to play in the game against Germany. A little over an hour into the quarterfinal win over China, O’Hara suffered an accidental headbutt to the nose, and it wasn’t long before blood began flowing.

“At that point, I was thinking ‘well I can’t just sit down on the field, I need to keep playing,” O’Hara said. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero or anything, I was just trying to make sure I played my position the best I could even if I was bleeding,”

Her nose was not broken, but O’Hara was forced out of the game once the referee saw the blood, marking the end of her first World Cup start.

Ultimately, winning the tournament for the team was what really mattered to O’Hara, because players such as Abby Wambach, Shannon Faulk, Rampone, and Holiday announced that this was their last World Cup.

“I think everyone wants to win [the World Cup], but knowing that there were a number of players who aren’t going to play in another World Cup was a big motivation for us,” O’Hara said. “To come so close and fall short in 2011 was tough, but it was really cool to be able to win with them this year.”

Rampone, who is also retiring from international soccer, will still be close to O’Hara as they finish their club season together with New Jersey-based team Sky Blue.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Christie on the club level and international level just by watching her and listening to what she has to say,” O’Hara said. “She is a huge component to our national team on the field and off it, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her about leadership and stuff like that.”

O’Hara plans to play for the USWNT for at least one more cycle through the World Cup and Olympics in 2019 and 2020.

“I want to play as long as I’m still having fun and as long as my body will let me,” O’Hara said. “I thankfully graduated from Stanford and have a good background to fall back on after I’m done playing soccer.”