The most decorated women’s soccer player of Hawaii’s Big West era is establishing a foothold as a professional.
Raisa Strom-Okimoto, UH’s first Big West offensive player of the year, saw her first official action as a pro with the Utah Royals in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) on Friday night.
She’d received an invitation to train with the team beginning in late February and had lived in Utah since. Then the Royals temporarily lost three key players from their roster to the Women’s World Cup — Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Kelley O’Hara. Strom-Okimoto was signed to replace Press back in early May.
On Friday night, after five matches of availability but no minutes, Strom-Okimoto came on for forward Mallory Weber in second-half stoppage time, playing her first official minute in a 0-0 draw at the Portland Thorns’ Providence Park.
“I would say my heart was pounding out of my chest in that moment,” Strom-Okimoto said in a phone interview Sunday with Hawaii Warrior World. “But I had a little conversation with the coach (Laura Harvey), she’s telling me what I have to do. And so I just took it all in, processed it, and tried to perform, do what she asked me to do.
“I got a couple touches in. After the game my coach told me I had 100 percent passing accuracy. I mean, I had one pass — 1-for-1,” she said with a laugh. “But yeah, I got a couple touches on the ball on that side. It was such a good opportunity.”
Massive congratulations to our very own @ricee_uh for making her professional debut this weekend for us. We LOVE this woman. An appearance that was completely earned 👏🏼 #TheFutureIsBright pic.twitter.com/yk7Zzzpodm
— Scott Parkinson (@parkinson_scott) June 23, 2019
Strom-Okimoto, who became the first UH alumna to see action in the NWSL besides Natasha Kai with with Sky Blue FC in 2016, came into a competitive situation; the Royals (5-2-2) are in second place in just their second season of existence. Of course, the speed of the game is much faster than college and has taken some adjustment for her. She’s leaned on veterans like Amy Rodriguez to help her through the process.
She was well aware opportunities off the bench would come sparingly. The NWSL uses a FIFA-style substitution system in that only three are allowed per team per game, and a player who comes off may not return. That’s quite a bit different from the NCAA, where substituting happens liberally.
“It’s what the game gives us too, and the situations that we’re in, what we need,” the Aiea native said. “If we need a more defensive player. So I kind of understand that. I understand my role. I’m just trying to be better as a player, learn as much as I can and then try to fight for my spot.”
That the seat she’s holding belongs to a player the caliber of Press — who has 48 international goals — is not lost on her.
“She’s up there with all of them,” Strom-Okimoto said. “At first you’re kind of star-struck, you know. You just watch them for so long, (then) you’re right beside them on the field. It’s kind of crazy at first.”
UH coach Michele Nagamine got word that her former star endeared herself to her new teammates by coming into camp as one of the fittest players and maintaining that same work ethic since February.
“She really set herself up for success to make the team and get a contract,” Nagamine said. “We’re just really proud of her, that she’s been able to try to absorb as much as she can, because Raisa’s a player who’s never had to sit on the bench. She’s pretty much always been a 90-minute player for every team she’s ever been on. Now that she’s surrounded by so many world-class players, it’s going to be a period of adjustment for her. But I’m most proud of the attitude she’s approached this whole endeavor with. She’s like, ‘I’m going to have a small mouth, I’m going to have big action. And I’m going to work as hard as I can.’ A lot of the things she did to make her successful at UH, she’s doing up at Utah.
“It’s not glamorous. She can probably make more money if she went and got a real job,” added Nagamine, who pointed out one of Strom-Okimoto’s goals is to go through nursing school. “But the experience she’s having is pretty much once-in-a-lifetime. How many kids try to go pro and just never get there? So I’m glad that Raisa is getting to live her dream.”
The Royals have asked her to stay for the full year, Strom-Okimoto said, although her contract only lasts through the end of the World Cup. (The U.S. women play Spain in the round of 16 on Monday.)
Up next for the Royals is Seattle Reign FC, which recently picked up another former Wahine standout, Addie Steiner, as a national team replacement. Steiner, on loan from her pro team in Sweden, has been a reserve for the last two Reign matches and is awaiting her first official action.
(UPDATE: Steiner made her NWSL debut for the Reign on Sunday night in a 1-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars, playing 22 minutes and recording two shots.)
Nagamine and her staff have plans to be at the match in Utah on Friday in the midst of a recruiting trip in the hopes of seeing one or both of the former Wahine in action. They were both first-team All-BWC players in 2016.
“It’s going to be just a really surreal moment,” Nagamine said. “Whether they get on the field or not is irrelevant for me, because it’s a big statement on where our program has been and where we’re going, and how we’ve improved.”
Said Strom-Okimoto: “(If we both got in), it’d be so awesome. But we won’t be friends in that moment.” She laughed.
As she’s battled over the last several months, the Hawaii girl who hadn’t ever lived away from home took to Salt Lake City and the surrounding mountains and snow. She’s hoping she takes to the league, too.
“I’m just thankful to be around this group of girls, having them be so supporting and helping me be a better player myself,” she said. “It’s just really good to be around people like that. Hopefully I can get more minutes, hopefully I can make a difference and at the end of the day, that’s what I’m striving for.”