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The inside story of Catarina Macário: A Star of the USA

Already a star of the women’s game, Catarina Macário is only just beginning her journey to superstardom. This is her inside story to date.

From playing in boys academies in Brazil to being selected for the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, Catarina Macário’s journey to the US national teams hasn’t been conventional.

First Time Finish spoke with two of Macário’s former coaches Chris Lemay and Paul Ratcliffe to learn more about the US‘s rising star.

Brazilian beginnings

Catarina Macário’s story began on the streets and local pitches of of São Luis in the Northern-Eastern state of Marahāo. It was here that Macário became attached to football from a young age.

Macário began playing in local pick-up games from as early as four-years-old. But with no female teams around she joined one of Flamengo’s youth teams playing alongside boys before switching to Cruizerio’s youth team aged five.

In 2006 when Catarina was seven the Macário family moved to Brasília where her mother, Ana Maria, was completing her surgical residency. Macário quickly found her feet in the capital joining a Santos affiliated club where she continued to play alongside boys.

Brazilian people are often characterised by their love of football, however Macário experienced the darker side of the countries love for the round ball. Whilst playing in male teams she faced discrimination for being a black girl.

When she turned 12, Macário was no longer allowed to be a part of the boys’ team. With her opportunities to develop limited in Brazil her family decided a move to the United States would be best of their talented daughter.

Catarina, her father Jose and her brother Steve, moved to San Diego, California whilst her mother remained in Brazil, working as a doctor to provide financial aid.

Upon arriving in San Diego, the family ran into their first problem. Only her teenage brother could speak English.

He would play an important role in the family’s early stages in America, acting as an interpreter whenever the family needed to do something like rent an apartment.

The American Dream

Whilst she couldn’t speak English yet, one language Macário could understand was football.

Before arriving in the US her father researched what club would be most suitable for his daughter’s development.

“He sent us an email explaining that his daughter, Catarina, is interested in developing in the US,” Chris Lemay, a former coach at the San Diego Surf tells FTF.

San Diego Surf are no strangers to these types of emails. As one of the outstanding academies for developing young female footballers they are often a sought-after club for relocating players to join.

“It wasn’t that exciting at the time. We receive so many of those emails, whether it be a kid moving from New York to California, or a kid moving from Japan to California. 90% of the time the kid shows up, and she’s not at the level.

“But when Catarina came in it was a totally different story. Sh was born in 1999 but her family had no real interest in looking at the 99s. They wanted her to at least play a year up with my 98s.

“I thought that I was going to have her train with us for 10 minutes and then shuffle her over to the next field where the younger team is.

“We were playing a small-sided game and the ball came in, Catarina took it out of the air with her thigh, lifted it over a player’s head and hit it straight out of the air on a full volley into the end of the goal. It literally took 15 seconds for me to say: ‘yeah we want her on this team.’”

Making a name for herself

It didn’t take long for Macário to make an impression in the US after joining the San Diego Surf academy.

In her first season in the Elite Club’s National League Macário broke the league’s goalscoring record with her staggering 50 goals in 24 games from midfield.

“As soon as we went to our first national event, it was all the buzz. I’m sitting there coaching her, and you can look around the sidelines and you’ve got all of the top 25 programmes, including the US national team staff, all there.

“We had a high end team full of players that have played for the youth international teams and at division one universities.

“But, we all know the main reason why they were there was because there was a special talent, that that doesn’t come around very often.”

Her goalscoring return drew the attention of the youth national team and she was selected for the US U14’s at the age of 12. In 2013 her talents caught the attention of the IMG Academy who named her as the Number One Player in the Nation from the Class of 2017.

“We played the Colorado Rush in the national semi-final and there was a real buzz.

“Colorado Rush had Civana Kuhlmann, who was one of the leading goalscorers in the country and went on to become a Stanford teammate of Catarina.

“With Catarina also being one of the leading goal scorers in the country we had all reason to believe that this was going to be a very, very tight match.

“I don’t remember exactly what the score was but I think it was 7-2. Catarina scored five.

Every time she got to two goals in a game all of her teammates on the bench would stand up and start screaming Cat-trick, Cat-trick, Cat-trick. The amount of times she found the third goal was amazing.

Stanford Cardinal

Those dominating performances were beginning to draw the attention from college scouts and coaches from as early as middle school.

One of those people who took an interest in Macário was Stanford Cardinal head coach Paul Ratcliffe.

“I think I first saw her play with her club San Diego Surf at a big club event in San Diego. She was so dominant playing as a number nine. She was just a dominant force with her back to goal receiving the ball, turning and finishing,” he tells FTF.

“When I go recruiting, if it’s a really special player you can see it within five minutes. For other players it takes you a little bit more time to figure it out.

“But she stood out straight away just with her technical ability, how smooth she was, how well she moved and her IQ for the game.”

Catarina Macario received a scholarship from Stanford University in 2017 and would join the Stanford Cardinal in her freshman year. She played football whilst also studying for her major in communications.

Freshman year

Just as she did when she arrived in the US from Brazil, Macario hit the ground running in colligate soccer.

“She really hit the ground running which is rare in college soccer. I think the physical transition from the youth level to collegiate level is difficult. But Catrina made that transition smoothly and made an impact,” Ratcliffe recalls.

“It’s really rare to make an impact in your freshman year like she did. Catarina was a big catalyst to help us win that National Championship in her freshman year.

Playing alongside players like Andi Sullivan and Alana Cook achieved double figures in both goals and assists. Her 17 goals and 16 assists in just 25 games helped Stanford to the second national championship in their history.

Macario provided two assists in the College Cup final as Stanford beat California rivals UCLA 3-2 at the Orlando City Stadium.

Her fantastic performances for the Cardinal earned her numerous personal accolades including the ESPNW Player of the Year, PAC-12 Forward of the Year and she was selected in the All-American first team.

Refining her talents

Macario’s form continued into her sophomore year (2018). She scored 12 goals in 14 regular season games as Stanford retained their PAC-12 Championship for the fourth consecutive season.

They once again reached the College Cup but this time they would fall in the semi-finals to the eventual winners Florida State.

Whilst her team couldn’t retain their National Championships, Macário continued to receive countless personal accolades for her star performances.

Once again she was named ESPNW Player of the Year but this year she was also awarded the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy for the best overall college player.

A standout feature of Macario’s game is her ability to score from distance.

Regular viewers of college soccer became accustomed to seeing her bend free kicks into the back of the net.

“It’s something that we definitely trained. I loved taking free kicks when I played, Catarina and I would hang out after practice and work on bending free kicks, she’s much better than I could hit them.

“She really honed that skill, the thing that really separated her was that she could open up and curl it to the far post, but also open up and then close and go to the near post with the same technique.

The goalkeepers had to try and read what she was going to do because she had such venom on the shots. If she could read what the goalkeeper was going to do then she would go across her body and score easily.

Born Winner

During her junior year (2019), Catarina Macario won her second national championship.

That season she scored a staggering 32 goals in 25 games, the highest number since Canadian legend Christine Sinclair hit a record 39 goals for the Portland Pilots in 2005.

On their way to the final Stanford dismantled Prairie View A&M University 15-0 in the first round of the play-offs. The win set an NCAA postseason record for largest victory and most goals. 

Catarina Macario was the standout performer. She was involved in nine of the goals scoring four and provided five assists.

“The team were really excited for the Play offs and wanted to prove something as the top seed, and they went after it. I actually subbed Catarina out in that game so she couldn’t score more.”

In the final Stanford faced number two ranked North Carolina in San Jose, California.

After extra-time the game remained goalless. A penalty shootout to determine the 2019 College Cup Champions. After the Tar Heels had missed their first penalty Macário stepped forward and scored to give Stanford an early advantage.

“It absolutely showed her confidence as a player to step forward for that first penalty. For me, when you go to PKs, you got to set the tone with your first kick.

“Catarina has the confidence; she has the presence, and she has the mental fortitude to go up and bury her kick. We felt really confident with her going first and it’s a credit to her that she wants to take on that responsibility.”

Stanford went on to win 5-4 in the shootout, becoming three time NCAA champions in the process. The win and her outstanding goal contributions saw Catarina Macário receive the MAC Hermann Trophy for a second successive year.

Going professional

For many players in the college system, it’s at the end of their fourth year that they sign their first professional terms.

But 2020 was a year like no other. Instead of completing her senior year of college Catarina Macário opted to go pro one year early.

At the age of 21, Macário signed for seven-time Champions League winners Lyon, joining them midway through the 2020/21 Ligue 1 season.

“I didn’t know too much about it,” Ratcliff recalls. “I knew she was thinking about it because of all the COVID restrictions we have here in the Bay Area, we weren’t sure if we were going to have a season.

Despite the fact he was losing his star player ahead of the upcoming season Ratcliff harbours no ill will towards Macário.

“I just want the best for my student athletes. Catarina has done so much for us here at Stanford. I always knew that there was a possibility she would be going somewhere, whether it was a top Pro team or the US National Team.

“When she told me, she was really gracious. She came in and said how much she would miss Stanford and how much she valued us as coaches and her teammates for what we did for her.

“She was sad to miss her senior season because she was lining up to be the greatest college player ever. Even with her stats now she’ll still be way up there near the top. The amount of goals she scored and assists in only three years was truly remarkable.

“If she had one more year, I’m sure she’d have blown all the records away for collegiate soccer.

Les Fenottes

Just as he did in 2011 Macário’s father, Jose, would move with her to France to help ease her transition into a foreign country under pandemic restrictions. 

His support has clearly helped Catarina Macário adapt to football in a new country.

Whilst the season ended in disappointment, losing out in both the league and Champions League to rivals PSG, Macario has enjoyed some early individual success. In her first few months at Lyon, she’s scored six times in just 11 games (633 minutes).

Her fast start in France has come as no surprise to coach Ratcliffe: “To be honest I expected this . Something that I try to teach my players at Stanford is to play an international style.

“We teach them to adapt and adjust to any different types of soccer. Whether they’re playing a high backline or a low backline, or possession or more direct, we have to learn to adapt to all those things.

“Because she has such a high level of technical proficiency, I think she’s going to be really suited to the highest level of international soccer. Lyon play great soccer, so I think she fits in really well.”

A U.S. Citizen

Despite being born in Brazil, Macário’s goal was always to play for the US. Whilst she wasn’t eligible to play for the national team as a youngster she was a part of their training camps.

In October 2020, hours after receiving her first senior US call up, Macário became an official US citizen meaning she was now one step closer to representing her adopted nation.

The wait was finally ended on January 13 2021 when she received clearance form FIFA allowing her to represent the United States internationally, becoming the first naturalised player to play for the USWMT.

In just her second game, and her first ever start for The Stars and Stripes, Catarina Macário scored her first international goal. The goal just three minutes into the game demonstrated the clinical player Macário has become.

Olympic hopes

This summer the USWNT will be hoping to claim their fifth gold medal as they compete in the delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Initially Catarina Macário was named as one of four alternative players in Vlatko Andonovski’s initial squad. However, a change in ruling from the Olympic committee has seen the squads expand to 22 players.

For Ratcliffe the decision to select Catarina Macário is an easy one: “If I was the coach, I would pick her, no doubt about it. She’s so versatile. Catarina brings creativity to the game.

“She’ll bring a calming effect to the team with her technical ability and her decision making.

“But I know it’s difficult because there’s a lot of players with more experience and things like that are going to play into it. But, you know, I think she’s a difference maker.”

Appearing at the Olympics in 2021 is the first of her doubtless many international tournaments. Get used to the name. Catarina Macário.

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