Linda Motlhalo motivated by Kealia Ohai and coach Pauw

Motlhalo has been entrusted with a starting place for the Dash this season, as the team sits mid-NWSL table at the halfway point. Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

South African teenager Linda Motlhalo has been a slightly surprising addition to the Houston Dash starting line-up in this National Women's Soccer League season, but feels ready to grab the opportunity handed to her.

The 19-year-old has been part of a revived midfield at the BBVA Compass Stadium, as the team has enjoyed a significantly better return this year compared to 2017.

Motlhalo, who had not played pro football prior to joining the Dash, has been spurred on by the presence of former South Africa national team coach Vera Pauw, as well as compatriots Janine van Wyk and Thembi Kgatlana.

"The first time I came here, I was so amazed at how the players have accommodated me. I immediately felt at home. They motivate me, encourage me," Motlhalo, an Olympian in 2016, tells KweséESPN.

"I'm glad I am working with Coach Vera again, she understands me. I must say thank you to her for giving me this opportunity.

"I have been with Thembi and Janine from the South African national team, so it is very comforting to have them here. We stay in the same complex and Thembi is my roommate.

"Coming from the [South African] SASOL League into the NWSL is not easy, the level is obviously quite a bit higher here. So you need to work hard and maintain your level every game."

Motlhalo believes she is lucky to have so many role models around her, for both club and country, to help her develop her professional career. That includes Dash captain and USA striker Kealia Ohai.

"Kea [Ohai], I look up to her. She is a very good leader and she is always talking to me about how to get better. She is very positive towards me," Motlhalo says.

"Mamelo Makhubani, Refiloe Jane, Amanda Dlamini, Janine van Wyk ... those are the [Banyana] players that I have looked up to. To see what they have achieved in the football industry is amazing.

"Janine especially is such a passionate person when it comes to soccer and I really look up to her because I have the same passion for the game too."

Just how far the slightly-built Motlhalo can go in the game will only become clear as the years unfold, but Pauw is certain that she can become a genuine star of the global game.

"Linda is a very skilful player with a great awareness for the game," Pauw tells KweséESPN. "[She has] a great feeling of the moments to go forward.

"She showed that at the Olympics two years ago when she was already the attacking midfielder of Banyana Banyana.

"She is very talented and I believe she can grow into a top star in the world."

Pauw does caution, though, that Motlhalo's workload needs to be properly managed and says the decision of the South African selectors to keep playing her in the national Under-20 side, as well as the senior team, is doing her a disservice.

"The fact that she has been playing at a lower level... she was put back into the Under-20 [South African side] and that did not do her performance well.

"But she is growing at the moment into her old self and we hope that we get that very soon," Pauw says.

It is a view echoed by Van Wyk, who says the sky is the limit for Motlhalo.

"Linda has an eye for always going forward and making the penetrative passes, and when she reaches her peak at 25 or 26 years old, she is probably going to be one of the best players in the world," Van Wyk tells KweséESPN.

"If she carries on the way she is, if she continues to play in a professional set-up like this, she has a really bright future."

Motlhalo knows that to fully compete in the American league she will need to get stronger, both mentally and physically, but she is up for the challenge.

"I am a very creative player, I create a lot of scoring opportunities," she says.

"Most of the time [opponents] push me, so I think I need to react quicker. I am not so strong, but that is something I am working on."