Algarve Cup could be Kai's big break
Natasha Kai has taken the first step that could mean a lengthy soccer career with the United States Women's National Team.
Selected as one of 20 players for the American team in the Algarve Cup in Portugal next month, her national-team future hinges on how the former Hawaii Rainbow Wahine striker performs in that tournament.
SB FILE / SEPTEMBER 2005
At UH, Natasha Kai dominated the offense, but with the national team she will have to complement her teammates.
Eventually there could be compensation from the United States Soccer Federation above and beyond the expenses Kai will receive for the upcoming trip as an amateur.
Not every member of the team who has used up her college eligibility turns professional. That decision is up to coach Greg Ryan.
"It depends on how I do in Portugal, There might be a possibility (of pay)," said Kai. "Coach Ryan wants me to come into residency (full-time training at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.) from April to September. I'm meeting with my counselors at UH to see what I can work out. I definitely want that settled before heading to Portugal."
She missed two weeks while at training camp earlier this month and will miss three weeks at the Algarve Cup. It may be necessary for her to put school on hold this semester.
The national team is changing from one of the oldest in the world to one of the youngest with the retirement of superstars Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy after a farewell tour that celebrated winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympics.
Ryan, then an assistant with the national team, didn't forget what he observed when Kai was on the Under-21 team in the summer of 2004 and scrimmaged the national team.
"I remember Tash playing against us. She was very dynamic and exciting. You don't forget someone that fast," said Ryan.
He saw her again briefly in January 2005 at another training camp, where Kai reinjured her right shoulder that was first injured in the 2004 Western Athletic Conference tournament in the Tulsa match.
Ryan checked with Hawaii coach Pinsoom Tenzing and U-21 coach Jill Ellis before inviting Kai to camp.
"Both said she was ready to make the jump. Their evaluations led me to give her a call," Ryan said.
Ryan also knew there were team needs to consider in selecting who to bring to camp.
"We needed someone who was good in the air and someone who could get in behind defenses," said Ryan, who noted Kai was in the best shape he had ever seen her when she reported to camp.
"Tash still has a lot to learn. It is a much higher level than any of the girls have ever played at. In college a coach builds his offense around a player like Tash. Here she needs to learn how to play with the other players to complement their abilities and the other players have to learn how to complement Tash's abilities."
Ryan, who uses a 4-4-3 formation with three strikers wants to make sure everyone is in the attack. That includes Kai, Christie Welch, Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez.
"It's about learning how to play with the strengths and styles of these other talented players," Ryan said.
"Tash was ready to put her best foot forward. She did very well in camp. She did well enough to provide herself with future opportunities."
The women finished third in the 2003 World Cup and are gearing up for the 2007 edition in China.
"We have placed in every world event and I think the U.S. will continue to be a dominant force in women's soccer," Ryan said. "There has been parity for several years, but we have the opportunity to be at the top of the international game.
"We are a younger team with a handful of veterans. Everyone is just getting started, but it is a great mix right now. I enjoy the chemistry of the whole group."
Note: The U.S. has won the last three Algarve Cup championships.