It happened in the 19th minute of a May 10 friendly match against Canada. A lofted ball drifted from the right flank. As players jostled for position, the goalkeeper charged.
In an instant, U.S. forward Natasha Kai went from being poised to score the game's first goal to becoming a facedown player whose back had just absorbed the opposing keeper's attack on the ball. As faces inside Washington's RFK Stadium cringed, members of both teams rushed to help the fallen Kai.
Many players have left games after enduring less traumatic collisions.
Not Natasha Kai. Peeling her face from the turf, she ignored outstretched arms of support and rose to her feet on her own. And later, in the same way that the Canadian keeper's mistimed challenge hit her, Kai blindsided her opponents: with a hat trick.
The United States won that contest 6-0. Kai's aggressive runs and fierce pursuit of the ball were clear contributors to the five goals scored before she was mercifully subbed in the 76th minute, a change Sundhage made immediately following the completion of Kai’s hat trick, the 25-year-old’s first for the national team.
"Every time I put on my jersey, I am going to give everything I have," Kai recently said by phone from her home in Kahuku, Hawaii. "I have to give 110% every time."
What few people knew that night was that Kai was fighting for the life of her professional career. When she joined the U.S. Women's National Team in late-January for her first training camp under new head coach Pia Sundhage, Sundhage was not impressed.
"She was not fit, and she was not focused," Sundhage said recently by phone from the team's offices in Los Angeles.
"It was a hard time," remembered Kai, who saw action limited action under former coach Greg Ryan as one of the last three players added to the 2007 World Cup roster. "I had missed the first camp [under Sundhage] in early-January because I had bronchitis, and I was going through a nasty break-up with my girlfriend. Then [Coach Sundhage] told me my job was on the line."
"When I talked to her, I wasn't nice," recalled Sundhage, a former striker with Sweden's national team who finished sixth in the voting for FIFA Women's Player of the Century in 2000. "English isn't my native language, so I had to be straight up with her. I told her, 'I don't like what I see,' and she just said, 'Okay.' I think, probably, she was nervous."
Three weeks after their talk, Kai showed up at the team's next camp determined to keep her spot and to be known for something more than a Nike commercial that featured her as the team's tattooed rebel.
Sundhage set her up with the team's fitness coach, Helena Andersson, to improve the young forward's fitness. Interval running was emphasized, and Andersson encouraged Kai to pay attention to data collected from the heart-rate monitors the players wear during training sessions. The monitors enable coaches and players to track the players' intensity levels during training sessions.
"Her turn around was amazing," said Sundhage. "The biggest thing is that now when she comes to camp, she plays really hard and pushes herself. The heart rate monitors don't lie."
Kai's intensity has not let up since that second game. She has scored 10 goals in 14 games in 2008, and has given her teammates better scoring chances through the relentless chase she provides as a forward paired with the team's world class striker, Abby Wambach. Regardless of which team is in possession of the ball, Kai always appears to be on the attack.
"Natasha Kai is one of those dynamic personalities and players that, when put into a situation or game, makes the most out of the opportunities she gets," Wambach noted in an email. "When she's asked to put pressure on the opposing team's backs and score goals, she has consistently found a way to do that this year and has scored some big goals for us."
No longer her team's sole threat up top, Wambach is reaping the rewards as well. Kai's aggressive pace and finishing abilities are forcing defenders to make a difficult choice: either over-commit to defending Wambach and risk giving Kai a chance on goal, or focus more on defending Kai and provide Wambach with more room to show off her ballhandling skills.
As Canada discovered on May 10, neither option is a desirable one. For much of that match, Canada attempt to mark both players, enabling Wambach to challenge defenders on the dribble and set up her teammates for a pair of goals. When the Canadians opted to focus their defensive energies on Wambach, she split the backline with a 10-yard square pass at the top of the penalty area to give a wide-open Kai her third -- and easiest -- goal of the game; it was also Wambach's third assist on the night.
"They bring out the best performances from each other," Sundhage said of the pair. "Abby is encouraged by Kai's intensity, and Kai does a good job getting open for Abby."
Those big goals come as no surprise to Pinsoom Tenzing, her former coach at the University of Hawaii, where Kai scored 72 goals in 73 career matches.
"She would make my job easy, because she does the hardest thing in the game: score," Tenzing said by phone from Honolulu. "If you saw some of the goals she scored in college, your jaw would drop. I haven't seen a man or woman in any league score some of the spectacular goals that Tasha scored for us. When I put her in a game, it almost felt unfair."
Tenzing first noticed Kai as a 13-year-old, and recruited her "relentlessly" as she came of age. She became the school's first-ever All-American and was a semifinalist in 2004 for the Hermann Award, given to the top college player in the nation. That same year, Kai joined the Under-21 National Team and led the team with 12 goals, including six in international matches.
Tenzing hopes she will become even more "goal-focused" when possessing the ball near goal, as she may be capable of scoring more often than she realizes.
"She is unselfish, and sometimes so when she could be greedy and take things over," he said.
While Kai welcomes the rebel image that the Nike ad and her 19 tattoos -- including a sleeve of Polynesian tribal designs on her right arm -- have fostered, she isn't sure that it is a totally accurate impression of her.
"On the field, I like to come off hard, but I like to chill out and relax when I'm not playing," explained Kai, the first Hawaiian ever to play for the U.S. Women's National Team. "My tattoos are a cultural thing, and a lot of people don't understand that."
One of six siblings, she resides near her childhood home and has the names of her family members tattooed on her arm. Her mother teaches sixth grade, while her father, Benny Kai, is a Polynesian musician who teaches Hawaiian history to kids at local schools.
With every goal Kai scores, she is forcing Sundhage to play her more.
"Kai is on fire right now," Sundhage said. "She's happy. She really likes to play and to be a part of the team. That's a great quality. She shares her happiness with everyone, and this gives me energy even on the bench."
Such happiness-sharing is evident in Kai's celebrations of goals. Muscle-flexes, chest-pumps, and leaping punches into the air all feature regularly in these exaltations, her intense enthusiasm for which is never less than wild, regardless of whether she or a teammate has just scored.
Added Sundhage: "As long as she keeps playing this way, she will be in the starting eleven."
Kai is not letting her success go to her head.
"I just think it's awesome to have this opportunity," she said. "I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be playing for the national team. I play soccer because I love it, and I won't do it for any other reason."