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BEIJING 2008 : WOMEN'S SOCCER

Giving U.S. a needed kick

August 16, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Natasha Kai is not your everyday women's soccer player.

For one thing, there are the tattoos that rival David Beckham's assortment of odd images in odd places. She has 19 of them.

The 25-year-old Hawaiian striker is also a free spirit, a surfer, a singer, a dancer.

Today she is also an Olympic semifinalist on the U.S. women's soccer team, only one victory shy of winning a medal at the Beijing Games.

It was Kai's goal in the 101st minute Friday that earned the U.S. team a 2-1 overtime victory over Canada and a place in the medal round. The defending Olympic champion Americans will play Japan on Monday in Beijing for a spot in the gold-medal game. Japan advanced by upsetting host China, 2-0, in their quarterfinal Friday.

The U.S. has never lost to Japan in 21 games, including a 1-0 first-round victory in these Olympics, and has never failed to reach an Olympic final.

In Monday's other semifinal, reigning world champion Germany will play 2004 Olympic silver-medal winner Brazil. The Germans defeated Sweden, 2-0, in overtime to advance, and the Brazilians overcame Sydney 2000 gold-medal winner Norway, 2-1.

Kai's dramatic goal came against an even more dramatic backdrop. The game was played in driving rain in Shanghai, where lightning strikes near the stadium caused a 1-hour 39-minute delay.

By the time the players headed for safety, 21 minutes of the quarterfinal had been played and the U.S. was leading, 1-0, on a 12th-minute goal by Angela Hucles.

After the 99-minute lightning delay, the Canadians began to pressure the U.S. and were rewarded in the 30th minute when Christine Sinclair lashed a 23-yard shot past U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo to tie the score at 1-1.

That remained unchanged until the end of regulation and the game moved into a 30-minute overtime. That's when U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage replaced Heather O'Reilly with Kai.

Kai made quite a sight, what with her one white shoe and one red shoe and a white headband inscribed with the uniform numbers of three U.S. players who were injured shortly before the Games and thus lost out on the trip to China.

Not a dozen minutes had passed before the switch paid off. Midfielder Shannon Boxx floated a cross in from the left, and Kai, sprinting toward the net, stooped to head the ball powerfully past LeBlanc.

The U.S. held on the rest of the way for the 2-1 victory. Boxx, who was playing in her 100th game for the national team, says Kai adds a vital dimension to the team. "We have certain players, and Natasha's one of them, that give us energy in the locker room and on the field," she said.

Two victories from a gold medal, the U.S. will need every bit of it.

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Jones reported from Los Angeles.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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