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Aug 15, 2008

Kai provides heroics off the bench for U.S.

SHANGHAI -- For a game that was straight out of "The Twilight Zone," it made sense that a player from another planet finally settled the Olympic quarterfinal women's match between the United States and Canada here on Friday. U.S. forward Natasha Kai, she of the many tattoos and different-colored shoes, nodded home Shannon Boxx's cross in the 101st minute to give the U.S. a 2-1 victory in a game delayed an hour and 40 minutes by lightning.

For Kai, her tournament in many respects has been like Friday's four-hour, 10-minute marathon: Nothing has gone as planned. These Olympics were supposed to be her coming-out party, one that would see her provide some goals in the absence of new mom Kristine Lilly. And when striker Abby Wambach broke her leg before the tournament, that only raised expectations that Kai would be the team's go-to forward.

Only it hasn't worked out that way. After starting for most of the year, as well as in the team's 2-0 opening-game loss to Norway, Kai has been reduced to reserve status behind Amy Rodriguez and Angela Hucles. And when asked to comment about the difficulty of her reduced role at these Olympics, Kai toed the party line.

"It doesn't matter if I play 90 minutes or a minute," she said. "Anything I can do to help out the team … it's a team sport, and it takes all 18 of us to become winners and succeed."

As it turns out, the demotion has been plenty tough for the Hawaiian to take, but Kai found a sympathetic ear in goalkeeper Hope Solo, who -- after last year's World Cup -- knows a thing or two about unexpected benchings.

"She wasn't playing her best, and I think she knew it" Solo said of Kai. "But it's hard to handle. I went through it last year, and it's a difficult thing. She's not quite her cheery self, but we expect that and we're here for her.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Japan
Monday
Beijing, China
9 a.m. ET

"But I had a long talk with her and I told her, Tash, we're going to need you big-time in this tournament. You're going to have to come on the field; we're going to need goals from you, so figure out a way to make it happen.' I think she needed to get it off her chest, and she came out and she played awesome."

Kai's importance extended off the field, as well, especially during a lengthy weather delay that couldn't have come at a worse time. The Americans were thoroughly dominating the proceedings and deservedly went a goal up after just 12 minutes when Heather O'Reilly's knockdown was tapped in from close range by Hucles.

When the game was halted by a barrage of rain, thunder, and lightning in the 20th minute, Kai made her first contribution of the night, assuming the role of locker room DJ in an effort to keep the team relaxed and focused.

"We were just playing some music, and singing and dancing. We knew we had a lot of time … and we just used our time wisely," said Kai with a grin.

But despite Kai's best efforts, the delay had the effect of killing the Americans' momentum, and allowing Canada to get back off the deck, equalizing in the 30th minute through a laser strike by forward Christine Sinclair.

The U.S. spent the remainder of the game squandering chance after chance, and as extra time began, a penalty shootout seemed a real possibility. That is, until Kai's entrance in which she exhorted the crowd and her teammates to get fired up.

"When she's waving to the crowd, and getting the crowd going, that puts a smile on the face of the people that are already tired on the field," said midfielder Boxx, who earned her 100th cap in the match. "It lifts us up."

Eleven minutes into extra time, Kai scored, and now the Americans have been lifted into the Olympic semifinals.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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