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Aaron M. Sprecher via AP

Former Alta star Kealia Ohai excited for return to Utah for 'business trip' against Utah Royals FC

By Sean Walker  |  Posted May 19th, 2018 @ 7:17am


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SANDY — One thing was on Kealia Ohai’s mind as the Houston Dash’s plane touched down in Salt Lake City before Saturday’s match against Utah Royals FC.

The Dash need three points, and their second win of the year for a Houston franchise that got out of the gates at just 1-3-4 in the National Women’s Soccer League.

But there was also something else Ohai thought as she looked out over the mountains — when can she got a chicken quesadilla from Cafe Rio?

“Every time I come here, I can’t believe how beautiful it is; I think I took it for granted, growing up here,” said Ohai, a former Alta High star and two-time Deseret News Ms. Soccer honoree who plays winger for the Dash.

“But I’m excited to be back at Rio Tinto.”

Ohai comes back to Utah one to two times every year to see her parents or younger sister Megan, who still live in Draper. But Saturday’s flight was different because she was coming back with her current club, the 2014 NWSL expansion team playing its first-ever game at Rio Tinto Stadium and the Utah Royals (1-3-5, 8 points), the league’s newest club that will host the Dash at 1:30 p.m. MDT on Lifetime TV.

“When I heard Salt Lake was getting a team, I was so excited,” said Ohai, who expects around 500 former teammates from her Utah Avalanche club team to meet her Saturday afternoon. “I knew it would be a perfect place for it. I didn’t always think that this would be possible, so it makes coming back that much cooler for me.”

Ohai tore her anterior cruciate ligament just 10 games into the Dash's season in 2017 — just as she was breaking into the U.S. women's national team, and she missed the rest of last season for a Houston team that finished 7-14-3.

The 26-year-old Draper native who played collegiately at North Carolina has one assist in four matches since her return, including three starts. Her return has sparked the rest of the Dash (1-3-4, 7 points), as former outside back Rachel Daly has found her form at forward for the Dash, and midfield presences like Kristie Mewis and Kyah Simon are also rounding into form.

But it’s hard to doubt the impact of Ohai on the Dash, first-year head coach Vera Pauw said.

“The whole team is growing, and Kealia is a huge part of it,” said Pauw, a renowned international coach most recently with South Africa. “She just goes. She’s not a person who makes things difficult. She is just always doing, and that is infectious to others. In that sense, she has a huge impact on the team.”

Utah coach Laura Harvey knows the Royals will have to account for the hometown product as she makes her first return to Sandy as a member of the opposing team in NWSL play.

“She’s really dynamic,” Harvey said. “I think she’s changed since we played them last time and become a much more counter-attacking team. That plays into Kealia’s game; when she can play into those one-v-ones, that is where she is most confident.”

Utah has plenty to prove against the Dash after taking a scoreless draw from the two teams’ first meeting in Houston that forced Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell to stand on her head. Saturday’s matchup will feature two of the top defensive teams in the league. Dash defender Janine van Wyk is first in the NWSL with 46 clearances and 13 blocks, while Utah’s five goals-against is tied with North Carolina for the best mark in the league.

“We broke every passing record, every possession bit, and couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net,” Harvey said. “That’s how they want the game to be. They don’t care about having the ball; they care about defending.”

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