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USWNT star Kelley O’Hara is ready to call D.C. home, on and off the field

U.S. national team defender Kelley O'Hara, 32, played five seasons with the NWSL's Sky Blue FC and three with the Utah Royals. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)
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As the months passed and trade talks ebbed and flowed, Kelley O’Hara was unsure whether she would be able to fuse her work life with personal life in Washington.

The two-time World Cup champion had moved to the city in 2019 to join her partner. Her professional responsibilities, however, remained with the Utah Royals in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Earlier this year, the Royals said they would honor her trade request to the Washington Spirit, but getting it done was not so simple. Utah was asking for more than Washington was willing to relinquish. Finally, last week, the sides struck a deal.

“There were a lot of emotions over the last couple months,” O’Hara said Friday, two days after the Spirit formally acquired her in its first major move of the offseason.

“This trade took a while to get over the line, but I am just really thankful it did. It’s the best yuletide present I think I have ever received. I’m just thankful that it finally got to a place where I can now call D.C. my home off the field and on the field as well.”

With Rose Lavelle now playing for English club Manchester City, O’Hara, 32, becomes the most decorated and famous player on the Spirit roster.

She brings 10 years of club and international experience. She was an integral part of the U.S. world championships in 2015 and 2019, earning a place on the all-tournament team in 2019. She won Olympic gold in 2012.

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O’Hara remains the U.S. team’s top choice at right back, putting her on course to start at the Olympics in Tokyo next summer.

“She is going to be a force for us, both on the field and off the field,” Spirit Coach Richie Burke said. “She brings the mentality of a serial winner to our club.”

Getting the deal done took work.

“It was up, it was down, it was all over the place,” Burke said.

Utah wanted a young starter in return: defender Tegan McGrady or forward Ashley Hatch. Washington balked, in part because of O’Hara’s age and injury history. For a long stretch this fall, negotiations were shelved.

Ultimately, the Spirit agreed to give up $75,000 in allocation money, which can be applied toward roster moves, and a conditional 2022 first-round draft pick.

For that pick to change hands, O’Hara would have to play in half of the Spirit’s games in 2021. That is no certainty, given she made just 14 appearances in three Utah seasons because of ankle and hamstring ailments, plus regular national team call-ups.

On a conference call with reporters Friday, O’Hara said she was relieved the teams completed the trade.

“This is home for me, and this is my city,” she said of Washington. (Last fall, shortly after relocating to the District, she drew attention attending a Capitals game at Capital One Arena.)

The Fayetteville, Ga., native starred at Stanford and, before joining Utah, played five seasons for New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC. Before the NWSL’s launch in 2013, O’Hara was with Women’s Professional Soccer teams in the Bay Area and Boston.

Her trade request, she said, was unrelated to the upheaval in the Utah organization. Dell Loy Hansen, who owns the Royals and MLS’s Real Salt Lake, was critical this summer of RSL players’ involvement in social justice causes.

Separately, the Athletic reported Hansen used racist language around employees. A business executive took a leave of absence amid allegations of sexist behavior. Hansen is selling his soccer properties.

“Utah treated me really well,” O’Hara said. “For me, this was a personal decision for off the field but also on the field.”

In Washington, she will take a leadership role on a team with a youthful foundation. Six regulars are 24 and younger.

“Her mentality is so huge,” 24-year-old midfielder Andi Sullivan said, “and I can’t wait for that to spread throughout the club.”

Sullivan has spent time with O’Hara in national team camps. Last week, Hatch and goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe were with the top-ranked U.S. squad for a 2-0 away victory against the Netherlands.

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Midfielder Tori Huster, 31, said she liked the idea of sharing the elder’s role.

“We talk about trophies, and she has won quite a few,” Huster said. “That’s the type of player we want to bring to the club. On top of that is her experience, helping the younger ones. We have a ton of them.”

Beyond being able to live in Washington, O’Hara said she was eager to join a team that wants to play attractive soccer.

“I remember this summer in the Challenge Cup watching the team play and being almost envious and excited for them because of the way they were playing, the energy on the field, the style of soccer,” she said.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NWSL did not conduct a regular season. Instead, teams competed in the Challenge Cup in Utah in the summer and in a seven-week fall series in home markets. O’Hara appeared in two summer matches before opting out of the fall schedule.

The truncated season interrupted the Spirit’s ascent in the NWSL. Washington improved by 23 points between 2018 and 2019.

Despite being the oldest player on the roster, O’Hara promised she has much more to give.

“I am constantly looking for more,” she said. “That’s how I have kept myself going. I am always looking to get better and to be going to that next level. And I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

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