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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 14, 2006

From North Shore to National Team

Hear Natasha Kai talk about her life as a professional soccer player

By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Natasha Kai was named to the U.S. National Team a month after being invited to camp.

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Hometown: Kahuku

Position: Forward

Height: 5 feet 8

Birthdate: May 22, 1983

Youth soccer club: Leahi Soccer Club

High school: Kahuku (2001)

College: University of Hawai'i, 2002-2005

Fun facts: First Hawai'i native selected to the U.S. National Soccer Team. ... Kai holds the state high school meet record in the high jump (5 feet, 5.5 inches, 1999)


2002: Freshman at UH—Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, all-WAC first team. Soccer Buzz Freshman All-America third team and Soccer Buzz Freshman All-West Region First Team.

2003: Sophomore at UH—WAC Player of the Year, all-WAC first team. Soccer Buzz third team All-American. Led nation in scoring with 29 goals.

2004: Junior at UH—Picked as a semifinalist for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy, awarded to college soccer's national player of the year. All-WAC first-team selection ... Was the first player from Hawai'i selected to the U.S. Under-21 Women's National Team. Led the squad with 12 goals.

2005: WAC Offensive Player of the Year, all-WAC first team. Scored a team-high 15 goals.

2006: Invited to U.S. Women's National Team training camp in January and was named to its roster in February. Scored goals against Japan, Denmark and France.

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All Times Hawai‘i

Saturday vs. Sweden



July 23 vs. Ireland

10 a.m.


July 30 vs. Canada

7 a.m.


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Natasha Kai has yet to grasp what she has accomplished.

"I don't know, I don't think it hit me, I don't think it will ever hit me," Kai said.

In February, Kai, a former Kahuku and University of Hawai'i soccer standout, became the first female from Hawai'i selected to the U.S. National Team, joining an elite group of athletes who will compete in the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.

"When I'm in the locker room, that's when I get nervous. When I see my uniform with my name on the back, it gives me chills," Kai said. "But once I put it on, it's business."

Kai, who scored three goals in five games with the national team, will make her national television debut in a game against Sweden tomorrow, the first domestic game of the year for the USA. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at noon Hawai'i time.

At times, Kai is still amazed to be playing alongside former role models in forwards Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach.

"I'm just playing soccer. I don't know. It's kind of my job now. I'm a professional. It's weird," she said.

She has been training with the team in residency camp, where players practice nearly every day at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Since joining the team six months ago, she has impressed teammates and coaches.

"The thing I like about her is that she's young and fresh," said Lilly, who holds the world record with 308 international appearances for the USA. "She's got this look in her eye like, 'Oh, I'll do anything.' She has no fear.

"You see that when she goes up for 50-50 balls in the air. She's a great header, and her timing on the ball is great, so she adds that to our game. She's still young and has a lot to learn, but what she's contributed so far has been great."

Lilly pointed to Kai's "great speed and great ability in the air," and how both would aid her in scoring goals and getting behind defenses.

Even in her short time with the team, Kai has improved in most aspects of her game.

"I've grown 10 times better as a player. I see the game way better. I understand that being just five inches to the right or left puts me in a better position to score," Kai, 23, said. "I know when I need to make a near-post run, or far-post run, make a slanting run or take a player on. It makes me such a better player.

"My touches on the ball are good; I just feel like I improved a lot."


One thing about Kai's game that was already near peak levels — and caught the eye of U.S. National Team coach Greg Ryan in the first place — was her athletic ability.

"She's a great athlete, great in the air, very gifted in terms of her goal-scoring," he said.

It was her goal-scoring ability that stood out in her previous stints with the University of Hawai'i and U.S. Under-21 National team, and was the "main reason," she was given a chance with the national team.

"She's done it with UH and U-21's, and we wanted to see if she could be productive with the women's team as well," Ryan said. "So far she's done very good, scoring against France, Denmark and Japan this year. She still has a long ways to go in terms of personal development and chemistry with the team. But she has the unique ability of being a true goal scorer."

Ryan set goals for Kai — to improve her fitness level and gain a better understanding of the system the team employs.

"We hope her role is increasing in size over time," he said. "She has to get herself to a higher level of fitness to get more minutes. So far her role has been sparking team and getting goals."


Lilly compared Kai to soccer great Michelle Akers' ability in the air. Akers retired from the team in 2000 and was named the FIFA Women's Player of the Century as the top female soccer player in the world.

Lilly said of Kai: "She has that presence that Michelle had. Obviously she's still young so she can grow into it more, but if there's a situation where she's going up for a head ball, teams better watch out."

Even Nike seemingly acknowledged her potential with the national team, signing her a week ago to a contract that could eventually find her on television commercials and print advertisements.

Kai earns a salary with the national team and is comfortable enough financially that she doesn't need a second job.

"I don't have to but should to keep myself out of trouble," she said. "So let them know back home, if anyone wants to hire me ..."

According to the Associated Press, players in the residency camp can earn from $50,000 to $70,000. The U.S. Soccer Federation has the option of hiring up to four more players at $30,000 per year and can bring in players to camp on a trial basis for up to six weeks.

Kai's newly acquired income has allowed her to change her lifestyle in a way that is beneficial for her career.

"I'm taking care of my body, eating healthy," said Kai, whose diet consists of salads, vegetables and chicken. "Now I have money to buy a healthy meal. Not just McDonald's 99-cent plain double cheeseburger. That's what I used to eat all the time."

It also gives her the opportunity to rent a house in Redondo Beach — "right by the beach. Perfect." — about 20 minutes away from the Home Depot Center. She lives with teammates Cat Whitehill and Aly Wagner.


She only will be in residency until September. She plans to return to Hawai'i at its conclusion.

Kai will dedicate some of her time at home as the coach for the Kahuku High girls soccer team.

"It's going to be hard for me, but there is so much raw talent on the North Shore and Hawai'i. I want to give back to the community," she said.

Although she will be flying in and out, with training camps from September through April, and tournaments in between, "I think it will be perfect," she said.

Always on the back of her mind is the Women's World Cup in Beijing next year, and the 2008 Olympics, also in Beijing. She knows that making the team this year puts her closer to her ultimate goal of playing in those tournaments.

"It is a dream come true. I'm not saying I'm going to make the team, but my chances are getting closer," she said. "I'm dedicating my time and energy to my teammates and the country to bring back the gold."

Ryan said it is possible for Hawai'i to get more players on the national team "if (Hawai'i) produces more like Natasha Kai. You can find national team players just about coming from any state. In some ways, and certainly in Tasha's case, she was just born with talent. It didn't matter what state she was born in."


Kai took an unconventional route to the national team, gaining attention during her All-American career at the University of Hawai'i, unlike others who were on the radar since high school.

"I think I took it as a challenge. I love challenges and proving people wrong," Kai said. "I did come in nervous, going up against people I watched in the Olympics. I needed to prove myself to them and the coaching staff. At first I hid in my shell, but then I thought 'Screw it.' Coaches brought me in for a reason. I wanted them to know I would back them up in a close game."

Kai's selection to the national team came at the right time, with a core group of veteran players — Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy — choosing to retire, paving the way for a fresh crop of players.

"It was just a new look for the team, and Natasha was a part of that new look," Lilly said. "And she's made an impact since she's been on it."

Reach Leila Wai at lwai@honoluluadvertiser.com.