A rising star in the football world, we pay tribute to the incomparable talent that is Catarina Macario.
The final days of March 2022 were spectacular ones for women’s club football.
On Wednesday, March 30, in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal, before the largest crowd in the history of women’s football, FC Barcelona Femeni and Real Madrid Femenino squared off in a pulsating, mesmerizing contest that delivered in every conceivable way — from a shocking and spectacular 45-yard chip just after halftime that put Barça in the alien position of trailing at home, to Aitana Bonmati channeling Lionel Messi as well as anyone in recent memory, to Claudia Pina’s spectacular third goal, to Alexia fittingly finding the net in front of the 91,000-plus that she helped bring together, to the postgame celebration that was effectively players and fans swapping love letters. The 5-2 Barça victory, though perhaps not shocking, will forever live in the memory. (I was there, and the words still escape me.)
The following night in France, Lyon, five-time treble winners and the pre-Barça preeminent power in the women’s game, entered the second leg of its quarterfinal trailing Juventus by a 2-1 margin. Of course, a comeback was by no means out of the question, but, like Barça Femini in the 49th minute a night earlier, the Lyon ladies found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.
Lyon got out of the gate strong, allowing Juventus little (this is generous) in the way of attacking opportunities, and piling on pressure in attack. Just after the half-hour mark, in a span of two minutes, (the 33rd and the 35th), 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg and Melvine Malard each struck to put Lyon ahead in the tie. Though they were dominating the match, they were hardly in the clear. After all, they were only eight days removed from watching a 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 defeat to Juve after conceding two late goals.
The score remained 2-0 for nearly 40 minutes, until the 73rd. Delphine Cascarino runs onto a long pass on the right wing just outside the box about 12 yards from the end line. She receives the ball with three Juventus players closer to her than her nearest teammate, though there is a bit of space in the box just in front of her. From her left, a figure darts in toward the penalty spot. It’s Catarina Macario.
Cascarino sends a pass toward the spot, where, Macario, a defender on her hip, smoothly collects the ball with her trailing foot, before shaking the defender with a pinpoint spin — a half Hakeem Olajuwon post up and half ballet pirouette — guiding the ball in front of her and, from about seven yards out, with a defender in her face and the goalkeeper staring right at her, thunders a shot into the upper left corner. In those circumstances, it’s as technically perfect a goal as you’re going to see.
You don’t have to know a ton about Macario to recognize this as not simply a golazo, but a bolt of brilliance that’s only available to a virtuoso. That being said… why don’t we all know more about Macario??
Origins of a Star
I’ve made no secret of my affinity for Trinity Rodman’s game. I stand wholeheartedly by the assertion that Rodman’s as preternaturally gifted a young player as there is in the women’s game, and is a virtual lock to be a signature star for both the USWNT and the NWSL. Right alongside her, not just on the national team but in the tier of young, transformative talents, is Macario.
Born October 4, 1999 in São Luís in northeastern Brazil, Macario, unsurprisingly, began playing football at a young age. Between the ages of 6 and 7, she played for a local affiliate of large Brazilian club Flamengo, before moving on to the football school of another large Brazilian club, Cruzeiro. When she was 7, her family moved to the nation’s capital, Brasilia. There she joined the football school of Santos – best known as Pele’s only club before his late-career move to the New York Cosmos and the club for whom Neymar starred before moving to Barcelona.
Macario remained at Santos until December 2011, when, faced with no longer being allowed to play in boy’s leagues — in which she’d played every step of the way to that point — she moved with her father and brother to San Diego, to pursue her footballing dream. Her mom, a doctor, stayed in Brazil to financially support the family.
So, at 12 years of age, without her mom and with no knowledge of English, Macario began playing with the women’s youth team of the San Diego Surf, whose 11 youth national championships and 26 regional championships speak for themselves. Suffice it to say she was ready. In her first season in the U-14 class, she led the league with 50 goals, then led the Surf to the U-15 Elite Clubs National League National Championship the following year, and ultimately broke the all-time goalscoring record in the ECNL with 165 goals.
It’s worth noting that, in the midst of her time with the Surf (2012-17), Macario was faced with one of the nightmares for any athlete: a torn ACL. The injury could have derailed not only her career but — given all she’d sacrificed in moving to the United States — her personal development as well. However, she responded to the lengthy rehab process and time away from the pitch as the special ones do. While recovering physically, she focused on her education, so well, in fact, that none other than Stanford came calling.
“I knew in that moment that it would be a long time until I touched a soccer ball again,” Macario said in an ECNL feature. “I immediately focused on school and doing the little things right to put me in the best position to return. The injury made me realize that soccer may not always be there, so that gave me the extra motivation to do well in school, which is what helped me get into Stanford… I leaned on my family, friends and teammates to stay motivated through my ACL recovery while telling myself daily that giving up was not an option. I love soccer, so I knew that I couldn’t let this get in the way of following my dream.”
In early 2017, Macario committed to play college ball at Stanford. Over three seasons in Palo Alto, she astounded. In 25 games as a freshman, she scored 17 goals, assisted on another 16 — tying Christen Press’s school record — while unleashing some lethal free kicks, and was named, among other things, TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Freshman of the Year, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Pac-12 Forward of the Year, and espnW’s Player of the Year. Stanford — led not only by Macario, but also Tierna Davidson, Alana Cook, Jordan Dibiasi, Tegan McGrady, and Andi Sullivan — won the NCAA Women’s College Cup.
As a sophomore in 2018, she only took part in 19 games, but still registered 14 goals and 8 assists. Nonetheless, she still was named TopDrawerSoccer.com’s National Player of the Year, espnW’s Player of the Year (again), Pac-12 Forward of the Year (again), and won the MAC Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top female player.
Somehow, these incredible showings were only a preview of what was to come. As a junior, she appeared in 25 games, during which she scored 32 goals and assisted on another 23! Basically, Stanford started every game that season with slightly more than a two-goal lead. Silly.
Macario again earned a hilarious assortment of honors and awards, including another MAC Hermann Trophy — the sixth woman to win the award in consecutive years since the award was established in 1988. Shockingly, the season ended with the Cardinal — who, it must be said, also featured future Portland Thorns star Sophia Smith and the 2022 NWSL draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Naomi Girma — capturing another NCAA Women’s College Cup.
Along the way, as you’d imagine, the question of international football came up. Though Macario had represented the U.S. at U-14, U-15, and U-23 levels, she had the option to play internationally for either her adopted home or her native Brazil. Despite the best efforts of the Brazilian Football Confederation, Macario elected to represent the United States in international play — after all, as she’s noted, though she’s a fan of Marta’s, Macario’s favorite-ever player is Mia Hamm.
On October 8, 2020, the day on which she announced her U.S. citizenship via Twitter, Macario received her first senior call-up, though she couldn’t take part in games until FIFA gave the go-ahead, which it did on January 13, 2021. This came five days after Macario’s announcement that she was forgoing her senior season at Stanford and turning pro, and a day after she signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with seven-time Champions League winners Lyon.
Five days later in a friendly against Colombia, when Macario made her USWNT debut as a halftime sub, she became the first-ever naturalized citizen to play for the senior women’s team. In the team’s next outing, another friendly against Colombia four days later, she started, and scored her first international goal. She’s since scored four more times in another 13 appearances, and earned a spot on the 2020 Olympic team in Tokyo.
How is She Underrated?
There are logical reasons why Catarina Macario has not achieved the fame that her talent warrants. That she was born abroad and only hit the U.S. youth soccer scene as a near-teenager who initially couldn’t speak English, likely worked against her.
Additionally her college career — incredibly successful and decorated though it was — played out as a member of an ensemble cast on Stanford’s powerhouse teams. That she then opted not to showcase her talents Stateside and enter the NWSL draft, but instead leapt to Europe probably put her a bit “out of sight, out of mind.” And, though she’s played very well for Lyon, with 14 goals in 20 league games (and 18 across all competitions) over parts of the last two seasons, her arrival has coincided with the rise of new powers (Barcelona, Chelsea, and PSG to name three) who’ve broken Lyon’s stranglehold on the women’s club game.
The 2020-21 season, in which Lyon lost the league title in France to PSG by single point, snapped a streak of 14 consecutive domestic league titles. Similarly, after winning seven of 11 UEFA Women’s Champions League crowns — and, again five trebles — Lyon didn’t even make the semifinals in the spring of 2021, as they were eliminated in the quarters by… yup, PSG. Compounding matters is the fact that she received sparse playing time during the Tokyo Olympic games, her first major competition with the USWNT in which she could have burst onto the scene. The team struggled without Macario in the lineup, receiving a disappointing bronze medal result.
This all makes sense. However, Macario has already achieved enough by age 22, and done so not just spectacularly, but with an innate, special gift for the game, for her name to be familiar to more than just hardcore fans. Given her astounding talent, her vast array of achievements, and a knack for persistence — and with Lyon squaring off against PSG on April 24 and 30, with a shot at a return to the top of the sport on the line — the smart money says that it soon will be.