Natasha Kai celebrates a goal during a USWNT friendly in 2008. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
This is a repost of the 2008 quarterfinal match between the USWNT and Canada at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games on Aug. 14, 2008. The USA plays Canada in the Tokyo Olympics semifinal Monday, Aug. 2 at 4 a.m. ET.
By Michael Lewis
SHANGHAI, China — The consensus among Natasha Kai’s U.S. women’s soccer teammates is that the Hawaiian native can be a wild and crazy gal and bring a ton of energy to the team.
She has 19 tattoos. The more important number for Kai’s teammates is her 21 international goals in 55 games. No. 21 came Friday when Kai came off the bench and headed home the winner in the 101st minute to lift the U.S. to a 2-1 victory over Canada in the Olympic soccer quarterfinals last night.
Kai mercifully ended a long evening for the Americans, who endured a one hour, 40-minute lightning delay that took four hours to complete as the defending champions booked their fourth consecutive trip to the medal round. The Americans defeated Japan in an opening-round match last week, 1-0.
“I feel like I am a player,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “I am exhausted.”
So were her players.
“Games like this are why you play,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “My legs were dead, everyone’s legs were tired, but you just have to push through it. It’s deal with this or go home.”
The Americans next will deal with Japan, 2-0 winners over China, in the Monday night’s semifinals in Beijing.
Kai made sure Sundhage and her teammates did not have to endure the added tension of penalty kicks, playing hero after being relegated to the bench after starting the opening match, a 2-0 loss to Norway.
“It’s hard for her,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “She’s been a starter now for quite some time. I went through that last year.
She’s not quite her cheery self. I told Natasha, ‘We’re going to need you big time this tournament. We’re going to need goals from you.’ ”
Solo’s words were prophetic. Kai, who replaced Heather O’Reilly in the 91st minute, waved her arms to the crowd of 26,129 at Shanghai Stadium when she entered the match. Kai said she did that “to get the crowd to get into the game with us. We need every little help that we can get. It gets us motivated.”
It certainly didn’t hurt as Kai eventually headed in Shannon Boxx’s left-wing cross from three yards past goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who had replaced injured starter Erin McLeod in the 19th minute.
“The ball got played back to Shannon Boxx and I saw her ready to cross so I just made sure I got on the end of it,” Kai said.
Added Solo: “She’s a different breed. I don’t know how they do it in Hawaii. She’s a ball of energy, so people thrive off of it. She comes in. Sometimes she doesn’t have to touch the ball. She’s accelerating. The fans love it.”
Kai headed the ball near a headband she wore with the numbers 4, 20 and 12 — the three regulars who are injured — Cat Whitehill, Abby Wambach and Leslie Osborne.
“They’re a big part of our team and I wanted to give them a little shout, so I put their numbers on my headband,” she said.
Angela Hucles’ 12th-minute goal gave the U.S. the lead. Amy Rodriguez sent a cross from the right wing to the left edge of the goal box that Heather O’Reilly headed toward the far right post. Goalkeeper Erin McLeod managed to get a hand on the shot as Hucles pounced on the rebound and knocked it home from one yard in the 12th minute.
That momentum was stunted when referee Jenny Palmqvist ordered both teams off the field and into the safety of their locker rooms during a severe thunderstorm in the 21st minute.
After an hour and 40-minute rain delay, the game resumed at 8 p.m. local time. According to Olympic rules, both teams had to wait a half hour after the lightning had ended to warm-up. They also were given an additional 15 minutes to prepare for the remaining 24 minutes of the opening half.
Faced with a long layoff, the Americans stayed active by playing music — hip-hop, jazz and slow — and dancing.
“I had a plan, but I changed my mind,” Sundhage said. “The players handled it very well. The team coached itself in the locker room. I am proud of the team.”
When the teams restarted the match at 8 p.m. local time (the game kicked off at 6 p.m.), Canada managed to equalize. A mistake by Lloyd led to the goal in the 30th minute. Midfielder Clare Rustad took the ball away from Lloyd in the American defensive third and sent a quick, yet short pass to Christine Sinclair. Sinclair took a couple of steps and fired a 24-yard shot to the right far post past Solo for a 1-1 tie.
“The way we looked at it was that we were starting the game all over again, 0-0,” O’Reilly said. “It might have played into Canada’s favor a little bit because we got that early goal, we were playing great soccer and they were definitely on their heels and then we had to come inside for such a long time.”
Then the Americans threw just about everything they had at Canada, outshooting their CONCACAF archrivals, 34-17, and placing more shots on goal, 17-7.
“All year this team is great at dealing with pressure, being down a goal or coming back,” said Boxx, who Friday night became the 22nd women’s player to reach 100 international appearances (in only five years).
Natasha Kai made sure Boxx will get cap No. 101 Monday night.