Kelley O’Hara’s path to joining the Washington Spirit turned into a nearly year-long odyssey. Trade rumors began bubbling the moment O’Hara moved her off-season home to the District, and at one point in August, sources told Black and Red United that a deal between the Spirit and Utah Royals FC was completely done, only for the move to be derailed at the last moment.
Last week, though, the teams were able to reach an accord, and for both club and player, the move brought a mix of relief that it finally happened, and confidence about what they can achieve in 2021.
“There were a lot of emotions over the last couple months,” said O’Hara while addressing the media for the first time since the trade became official. “This deal took a while to get over the line but I’m just really thankful it did. It’s the best yuletide present I think I’ve ever received. So, I’m just thankful that it finally got to a place where I can now call D.C. my home off the field, but now on the field as well.”
Spirit head coach Richie Burke concurred, saying the trade “was up, it was down, it was all over the place,” while noting that he found the eventual cost ($75,000 in allocation money, and potentially a first round draft pick if O’Hara meets certain conditions based around appearance totals) appealing in part because he didn’t lose any players in the process. “We know we paid quite a bit of money to get a player of this caliber here, but I’m thrilled to have her and add to what we’ve got already.”
It seems clear that the Spirit see the two-time World Cup winner not just as an addition to their lineup — Burke interjected at one point that O’Hara belongs “in the World XI!” — but as a player that can boost their entire squad in terms of additional leadership and professionalism.
“I think it’s obvious: we talked about trophies and she’s won quite a few. That’s what we want to bring, the type of player we want to bring to the club, the quality that she will add to our roster,” said Tori Huster, the only player to be a part of every single season in Spirit club history. “On top of that, and [what will] probably will help me a lot is going to be her experience. Just helping the younger ones, we have a ton of them on the team, and I am very hopeful that they will take all of the opportunities to ask her questions and learn from her.”
Spirit captain Andi Sullivan called O’Hara “a winner” and added that she “can’t wait for [O’Hara’s mentality] to spread throughout our club... I think her perspective is going to be huge.”
Burke went so far as to say that the growing leadership core among the squad — including Aubrey Bledsoe alongside Sullivan, Huster, and now O’Hara — has reduced his responsibilities as a coach.
“The more we get leadership, and the more we get people who can handle the dressing room and handle the growth of our young players, it just makes my job easier,” explained Burke. “I’m feeling more and more diminished in this role, but I’m okay with that. As long as as long as it makes us win and bring a championship to this football club, that’s what our mission is. And that’s why Kelley O’Hara’s here. I’m happy with this leadership group.”
O’Hara rejected the idea that the move had anything to do with the issues that lead the NWSL to effectively move the club to Kansas City. “I don’t think that it was an ‘I don’t want to be in Utah anymore.’ Utah...they treated me really, really well, they gave me a top class professional experience, and I’m really thankful for the time that I spent there... For me, this was a personal decision for off the field, but also on the field.”
That “on the field” note came up more than once for O’Hara, whose NWSL career has been spent at two clubs (Utah and, from 2013-2017, Sky Blue FC) who have combined for one playoff appearance. “This summer in the Challenge Cup, watching the team play, [I was] almost envious, and excited for them, because of the way they were playing, the energy on the field, just the style of soccer. So I think that Richie has done a very good job, and the ownership here is putting the pieces together to get this club to where it needs to be to win an NWSL championship.”
Washington’s recent moves to establish themselves as a bigger club are also part of the appeal for the Georgia native. The Spirit intend to play the majority of their games at Audi Field, and will share the new D.C. United training facility being built in Loudoun County once it is completed, and the club’s overall infrastructure improvements are not lost on O’Hara.
“The fact that [the] Spirit is beginning to make that transition was another reason why I felt like it was time for me to make this move and become part of this club,” said O’Hara. “I’m hoping we play all of our games at Audi [Field]. I think that’d be fantastic... I’ve been to a game there and it’s an excellent environment, so to be able to play there will be really, really special.”
There’s also the off-field aspect for O’Hara, who made no secret of her fondness for the District. “It’s now my first home. I moved here last year to be with my partner,” explained O’Hara. “Since moving here, I’ve loved every second of it. I love the city, love the energy brings, love what it has to offer. And I think if I didn’t like it as much, I probably wouldn’t have...made this move.”
Adding O’Hara figures to be a huge piece of the puzzle for Washington, but despite completing this trade, extending several contracts (including a new deal for Huster), and signing Japanese international Saori Takarada over the past few days, it doesn’t sound like they’re done making moves.
“I think we might need to add another attacking piece, maybe an attacking midfield piece, and I would like to get a little bit more support in the central defensive area too,” said Burke, alluding to a possible change in system next year as well. “Our football is great and flows well from the back to the midfield, but a piece for us that’s missing is that attacking piece, which is what we’re looking at addressing in this offseason.”
That said, Burke said he’d have no problem playing a game right now with Washington’s existing roster, an opinion shared by Huster. “I’m just very excited about what our roster is looking like. We have had young players for the last couple of years, but now we’re going to ask them to step up and be instrumental to what what our play looks like, and I think we are building in the right direction. And, yeah, I think we’re looking good.”
Echoing her new teammate’s confidence, O’Hara summarized her feelings on combining a desire to play for a potential contender in the city she now calls home. “I’m very excited to be part of this specific team now, in this club and this city, and working towards bringing a lot of fun times and wins to the District.”