Dunn, Ohai to go separate ways in professional soccer
Friendship is often forged based on mutual interests. A favorite band, a favorite restaurant. The friendship between Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai, the respective top two picks in Jan. 17’s National Women’s Soccer League’s draft, is no different. But their mutual interest was not a band or a restaurant. They shared a common desire for dominance, an addiction to victory and a yearning for success.
It began in Costa Rica. They were 14 and playing on different regional teams for the United States. During the trip the teams hosted a convention, which essentially was a fancy word for a dance party. And though it was eight years ago, Ohai remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I look over and Crystal (Dunn) is in the middle of the dance circle going crazy,” Ohai said.
That was her first memory of Dunn, and at that moment neither of them could have predicted what their future had in store for them.
They became Tar Heels together and began their pursuit for a national championship together.
“Me and her were always Thing 1 and Thing 2,” Dunn said, unable to stifle a laugh. “Testing our coaches, not really following the rules all the time.”
The weight of a dynasty was on their shoulders the moment they set foot on Fetzer Field — it’s inevitable when you play soccer for UNC and coach Anson Dorrance. Dorrance doesn’t wax philosophically about the titles. He doesn’t have to. It’s hard to ignore the fence of Fetzer, adorned with the 22 years of Tar Heel titles. And for the first two years, they felt it.
“We felt a lot of pressure between the two of us,” Ohai said, “When we lost, it was hard. If I didn’t have Crystal to go through that with I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
When the pressure got too big, they knew they could go to each other; each knew that the other was feeling the same pressure.
“No one can relate to what you’re going through,” Dunn said. “We were doing a lot of stressful things that no one would understand.”
Though two years ended fruitlessly, it made the third year that much more sweet. Playing for the U-20 United States team, they brought home a world championship with Dunn assisting Ohai on the game-winning goal in the title game. They brought home a title for their country, but it wasn’t enough. They hadn’t brought one home to Chapel Hill. But the third time was the charm for this dynamic duo, and as juniors they won the national championship they’d been seeking — with a 4-1 win against Penn State — despite finishing the season tied for a UNC-worst five losses.
“We might not have had the best individual team,” Dunn said of that season. “But collectively, we were willing to kill ourselves to get the ending we wanted.”
Their connection on the field is undeniable — Ohai, a forward, and Dunn, often at midfield. They each had an uncanny ability to know where the other was on the field at every moment of a game, Dorrance often referring to the pair as UNC’s resident superstars. That ability allowed them to connect with each other repeatedly, tallying goals and assists with relative ease.
Their final year as Tar Heels brought a bit of a sour end to their careers. They fell short of defending their title, falling to eventual champion UCLA on their home field.
The punctuation on their college careers didn’t come with a national title. Instead their punctuation came at the draft for the National Women’s Soccer League. Once again they found themselves at the pinnacle of their sport. When the Washington Spirit made the first pick of the draft, it would’ve surprised everyone if Crystal Dunn’s name wasn’t announced. Her partner in crime wouldn’t have to wait long, the Houston Dash took Ohai with the second overall pick. Later in the draft, the Seattle Reign FC took UNC defender Megan Brigman with the 17th overall pick.
“It was such a good thing to end our college career that way,” Ohai said. “That was cool because of all the things we’d been through together.”
It says a lot about them as individuals and speaks just as loud about the program as a whole.
“We will sacrifice anything for our teammates,” Dunn said, “It’s hard to teach someone to literally kill themselves on the field.
“We build great players.”
And though the great players’ paths have diverged, their days as teammates might not be over just yet. Dunn is already a member of the U.S. national team, and Ohai has aspirations to join her. But first they must be enemies, they’ll play each other at least three times in the upcoming season. Go ahead and ask them if they’ll go easy on their former teammate, they’ll laugh in your face. Never in a million years.
In the meantime they’ll go their separate ways, each preparing for the first time they’ll suit up in different locker rooms to face a new opponent. For Ohai it’ll be new, but for Dunn it’ll feel pretty familiar. Her first match? A scrimmage. Against the North Carolina Tar Heels.