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Natasha Kai's return shows that NWSL is on the rise

Natasha Kai coming back to the league shows you can go home again.

Head coach and captain Christie Rampone and forward Natasha Kai after the 2009 WPS championship.
Head coach and captain Christie Rampone and forward Natasha Kai after the 2009 WPS championship.
Harry How/Getty Images

What do Carli Lloyd, Christie Rampone, Heather O’Reilly, Hope Solo, Nicole Barnhart, Tobin Heath and Natasha Kai have in common?

All of them won an Olympic gold in 2008, and all of them will be suiting up eight years later for the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season.

For seven of them this was not in doubt, but before announcing her return to Sky Blue FC, Kai had been out of club play since she last suited up for the Philadelphia Independence in 2011. Although the Washington Spirit took her in a supplemental draft before the 2013 season, she ended up not playing for them that season or any other.

Kai is an exciting player to watch, funny on social media and experienced enough to help guide a locker room of first- and second-year pro players. She was a fan favorite during her first term at Sky Blue FC during the WPS days, and no doubt she will be once more.

Kai coming back to pro soccer is important, not only for Sky Blue, but to show it is possible to take a few years off and come back. Walking away at 25 or 26 does not mean a player has to close the door permanently on her career.

Kai is not the only one who changed her mind about playing pro. Melissa Henderson and Haley Carter, both of the Houston Dash, retired after the 2015 season only to come out of retirement before the 2016 season.

Kai also adds her name to a growing list of former U.S. Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) players who are playing in the league past their tenure with the national team.

Nicole Barnhart of FC Kansas City is the third-most-capped goalkeeper in USWNT history. Although she is no longer allocated, she is still standing between the posts for her club team.

Barnhart’s teammate Yael Averbuch had over 20 caps for the national team between 2007 and 2013. Three more newly-retired players—Amy LePeilbet (FC Kansas City), Stephanie Cox (Seattle Reign FC) and Rachel Van Hollebeke (Portland Thorns)—all had long national team stints before playing solely for their respective clubs.

And Sky Blue and former U.S. WNT captain Christie Rampone may just be adding her name to this list this year as well.

Seeing successful players come into the league or stay in the league past their national team careers is an important marker that the league might have a real future. I can’t point to a chart or graph telling me it means the league will definitely see a year five or six because of it. However, with a talent pool already so thin in places across the league, it helps to bring back players like Kai who have reached the highest peaks and now want to give the NWSL a try.

I look forward to watching all the NWSL players this season, both those who play for the U.S. WNT and those who play for club only. Maybe a player from the past will light up the field this season, sparking someone else to follow suit next year.