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U.S. women's quarterfinal hero Kai marches to beat of her own drum

SHANGHAI -- Most soccer games last two hours in real time from the kickoff to the final whistle. But there are exceptions sometimes, and the U.S. women's strange, rain-soaked 2-1 Olympic quarterfinal win over Canada here on Friday was an exception for the ages.

Four hours and 10 minutes after the opening whistle, on a marathon evening extended by a 1 hour, 40-minute lightning delay and a 30-minute extra-time period, the Americans celebrated clinching a berth in the semifinals against Japan on Monday.

For me, one indelible image will remain from this night: the sight of Hawaiian forward Natasha Kai entering a 1-1 game at the start of extra-time, running to the center-circle and waving her Polynesian tattoo-sleeved arms in giant circles like a madwoman with ADD.

I couldn't help but wonder: What's she doing? Is she nuts? Who's she trying to rev up? There's almost nobody left in the stadium.

But I should have known better. Kai's targets included the remaining U.S. fans, her energy-sapped teammates and, not least, herself. And when Kai headed home the game-winner in the 11th minute of extra-time from Shannon Boxx's cross, it was clear: There's a method to her madness.

"She's a different breed," said U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo afterward. "I don't know how they do it in Hawaii. She's a ball of energy, so people thrive off of it. She comes in, and sometimes she doesn't even have to touch the ball, she's celebrating and doing dances. The fans love it. It riles her team up. She's that kind of character for us."

Quirky doesn't even begin to describe Kai, who has 19 tattoos (and counting), a protruding ring in her pierced lower-lip and one red shoe and one white shoe when she's on the field. Sometimes she slips into so much pidgin Hawaiian with her teammates that they ask her to start speaking English again. And when her teammates had started to nod off during the long rain delay on Friday, it was Kai who cranked the music in the locker room, blasting reggae, hip-hop and even (no lie) a little bit of Journey.

Something tells me the men's team would have approached things a bit differently.

"I guess you could consider I'm different -- the way I look, my personality," Kai told me afterward. "But that's how I am. I'm just chill. We all have different personalities, and that's what makes our team so great."

If Kai wasn't scoring goals for the U.S. soccer team, I figure she might be bombing around a roller-derby track somewhere in a town near you.

It was hilarious watching the Woman with One Red Shoe explain her tattoos to a bewildered (and slightly scared) female Chinese journalist after the game. "It's part of my culture," Kai said. "I have my family on my arm."

"Family!" the Chinese journalist exclaimed.

"This is all my family right here," Kai said, showing the names on her right arm tattoos. "So I know every time I travel I won't be with them, but I know if I looked on my arm they're with me in spirit."

All joking aside, Kai needed to make a big contribution after losing her starting forward spot to Amy Rodriguez following Kai's first Olympic game, a 2-0 loss to Norway in which she missed a number of scoring chances.

"It's hard for her," Solo said. "She's been a starter now for quite some time. She wasn't playing her best, I think she knew it. It's hard to handle, you know. I went through that last year. She's not quite her cheery self, but we expect that and we're here for her."

"I had a little talk with her. I told her, 'Tash, we're going to need you big-time this tournament. You're going to have to come on the field, we're going to need goals from you, so figure out a way to make it happen.'"

On Friday, she did. Losing her defender in the Canadian box, Kai sprinted on to Boxx's cross for her game-changing header, in which the ball struck her smack-dab on her custom-made headband that features the jersey numbers of injured U.S. players Abby Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill.

It was a nice piece of symbolism: On a night when the U.S. got one step closer to a repeat gold medal, it was as if the players who aren't here helped score the winning goal themselves. From a team-unity perspective, it doesn't get much better than that.

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