The Kai's the limit for USA
© FIFA.com

Level with neighbours and hot rivals Canada on 15 August in soggy Shanghai, the United States were running out of ideas and in dire need of a spark as extra time got underway. Cue one Natasha Kai - waving her arms around and whipping the Chinese crowd into a frenzy, the Hawaiian-born substitute's swift play and boundless enthusiasm were just what the doctor ordered for Pia Sundhage's Americans.

Nine minutes after coming on as a sub, Kai, 25, latched on to a cross from Shannon Boxx, playing in her 100th international, and nodded the USA into a semi-final with Japan. True to form, the heavily-tattooed speed merchant danced wildly in celebration after bulging the net.

"It doesn't matter if I play one minute or 90 minutes, I just want to do what I can to help the team," Kai told FIFA.com after the 2-1 win which was halted for one hour and 40 minutes due to a massive storm over Shanghai "I always like to play with high energy and a high tempo, and I'm thrilled that I could bring a spark when my team needed it."

Kai, with her endless energy on and off the pitch, is a source of inspiration to her teammates, coach and everyone associated with the US women's national team. "She's a special person," said Boxx ahead of a semi-final re-match with Japan in the Chinese capital. "She gives us energy when we need it and totally inspires us.

"When she got out on the field against Canada and started whipping up the crowd, we all had to smile because that's pure Kai," Boxx went on. "She brought a spark when we really needed one, and that's just what she does."

Kai played the full 90 in the Americans' opening group loss to Norway, only a combined 44 in the wins over Japan and New Zealand, but her coach knows just how crucial her 30 minutes against Canada were.

"Natasha is just how she looks," US coach and former Sweden great Pia Sundhage said. "She's pure electricity, energy and happiness. She's always smiling and positive and her personality is a big plus for us."

Japan re-match
Having come on with only four minutes to go in the USA's group stage win over the Japanese, Kai had a good chance to analyse the play of her semi-final opponents from the bench. She said: "We know Japan are a highly technical team and they play really well with the ball on the ground, but I think we have what it takes and we'll be ready for them."

Calling her stay at the Olympic Village "an amazing experience," Natasha is keen to cap her first Games with a gold medal, which would be the Americans' second straight and third overall. But she is quick to pull the brakes on thoughts about medals, podiums or national anthems.

She may be the American's energetic spark plug, but Kai is also careful not to get carried away with things ahead of a crucial semi-final. "It's important not to start thinking about medals at this point," she concluded. "If we start focusing on anything besides our next opponent, it would be a huge mistake."