In the first blockbuster trade of 2020, the Chicago Red Stars sent defender Katie Naughton and the 18th pick to the Houston Dash for Kealia Ohai. It is a move that could help all involved.
The Red Stars previously finalized a trade with the North Carolina Courage that would send Chicago’s 6th overall pick to NC for the 9th and the 18th, the latter then used as a part of the Ohai trade — as a quick note before going into the trade and its ramifications, the Chicago Red Stars still have four first-round picks (4th, 5th, 8th, 9th). I would expect more trades involving these picks in the coming weeks.
Kealia Ohai was drafted second overall by the Houston Dash in 2014 and has since shown her value to the club. In 2016, she scored 11 goals and just missed out on the golden boot that year. However, since then, she has struggled to make serious strides.
Injuries hit, especially in 2017 when she was sidelined by an ACL tear for most of the season, and when she did get on the pitch, she simply was not as effective as she was in 2016. At one time, Ohai was considered to be a sure call-up for the USWNT, but now she seems to have fallen by the wayside.
That is the gamble that Rory Dames and the Chicago Red Stars are playing here. Ohai is a speedy attacker who can break through defensive lines easily. She is more likely to be a winger, but it’s entirely possible that she might end up being the tip of the spear to chase after long balls, which is a strategy that Dames has used in the past with Christen Press. The hope for the Red Stars is that Ohai will find her groove back in Chicago. This is a fresh start and she has the ability to make one of the most exciting teams in the NWSL even more exciting. It is a risk, of course, but her talent might just make it worthwhile.
There is another knock-on effect that should be considered for the Chicago Red Stars. While Ohai offers a high-ceiling offensive weapon, some defensive questions remain. With Naughton gone, Brooke Elby retired, and Arin Wright expecting a child, the Chicago defense looks extremely thin. The starting four are impressive, but they lack the necessary depth to navigate an entire season. This is especially important since all of those defenders have USWNT call-up potential and would leave the club without a defense. Expect more moves to be made later this month to remedy that.
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But Ohai isn’t the only player involved this trade. On the return end, Katie Naughton will be going to Houston. Naughton is a local defender — something that Dames seems to find a lot of — and was drafted 19th overall in 2016. While her actual defensive capabilities are strong, Naughton has shown a weakness when it comes to making decisions with the ball at her feet. During the 2019 season, it appeared that other players were more suitable to start and she ended up on the bench to close out the campaign. Going into this offseason, she was presumably seen as surplus to requirements, and the Chicago Red Stars have now traded her.
In Naughton, the Houston Dash are getting a strong defender. The reason she lost her spot in Chicago wasn’t that she got worse, but that everyone else just got better. Naughton is still a starting quality center-back and the Dash should be happy to bring in someone who works incredibly hard and has extremely valuable defensive skills.
For the Dash, then, this trade makes complete sense. They have been linked with bringing in a high-profile striker that can quickly replace Ohai so now they open up that spot while adding a defender at the same time.
All in all, this is two teams hoping to address their needs by trading away players that are somewhat surplus to requirements. By the end of the next season, we could well be looking back at this trade as one that helps all involved.