Across sports, it’s not unusual to see athletes consider returning to their original teams later in their careers. Players often take the opportunity to build on first experiences and re-mold personal legacies while etching their names in team lore. But for Kelley O’Hara, a move back to New Jersey would probably surprise her past self.
“I would have never considered coming back a couple years ago,” said the two-time World Champion defender, speaking to the media in her introductory press conference after officially signing with Gotham FC in her first year of free agency.
While the first free agency announcement (though not quite the first signing, since the deal was finalized this week) in NWSL history made unprecedented waves, O’Hara is no stranger to New Jersey.
“I was driving out to the facility yesterday, going to PT and just being in Jersey just felt so good. I was like, dang, it’s good to be back here,” she said.
O’Hara played for Sky Blue FC from 2013-17, but she says that her new club bears little resemblance to the one she left in turmoil, even beyond the team’s 2020 rebrand to Gotham FC. Sky Blue in 2017 was a troubled club in the final year of disgraced former manager Christy Holly’s tenure as coach, with conditions later exposed in 2018 as being consistently below the standard of a professional sports organization.
“I loved playing for this club and the teammates that I had, but there were a lot of issues that we had to deal with as players, which is ultimately why I left. Because I was just like, this isn’t up to the standard that we deserve as players,” she said.
Let's make it official, shall we? 😉Welcome to #GothamFC, @kelleymohara! #YERRRR— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) January 25, 2023
Let's make it official, shall we? 😉Welcome to #GothamFC, @kelleymohara! #YERRRR
While playing first for the Utah Royals, and then winning the 2021 NWSL championship with the Washington Spirit, O’Hara kept tabs on her first NWSL club, and the changes are noticeable.
In the years since O’Hara left, Gotham has undergone major changes both on and off the pitch. They relocated their home games from Rutgers’ 5,000-seat Yurcak Field to Red Bull Arena, brought in high-profile investors like Eli Manning and Sue Bird, and rebranded both in team name and logo. O’Hara said she wants to be a part of the club’s journey toward winning its first NWSL championship.
“The sales pitch was, ‘Come back, and be part of getting this club to where you wanted it when you played here before,’” she said, likening the free agency process to her experience with college recruiting. And while her memories of Sky Blue aren’t all positive, she fell in love with the area during those five years, saying it has a soft place in her heart.
“I lived in Brooklyn for two years, I lived at the [Jersey] Shore for three years,” O’Hara said. “I loved being in Jersey. I love being in New York City.”
O’Hara is still rehabbing a hip injury that has kept her off the pitch in recent months, but she says she is hopeful to be ready to go for the team’s first regular season match in March. She’ll join a Gotham team in transition, looking to improve upon their last-place finish in 2022 with a new coach and a revamped roster that now includes USWNT teammate Lynn Williams.
And while O’Hara is looking forward to the upcoming season, coming back to New Jersey is a full-circle moment for the 34-year-old.
“It’s exciting to watch, like as a player, to see how much has changed from the first day that I showed up for Sky Blue, to now coming back and being at a media day for Gotham,” O’Hara said. “It’s crazy.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.