The first steps of Catarina Macario’s path toward professional soccer are easy to pick out, even in the grainy videotapes of her playing the sport as a girl. She doesn’t scissor over the ball so much as dance over it. She darts past defenders or lobs the ball over them. She leaves goalkeepers flat-footed.
Even before she had entered her teens, Macario had mastered the two skills every Brazilian striker learns early: how to put the ball in the net and how to race toward the nearest camera to celebrate.
And yet Macario was different. Soccer is ubiquitous in Brazil, so it was only natural that she gravitated to the game played on its beaches, fields and streets. But as a young girl growing up in São Luís, a coastal city in Brazil’s northeast, and Brasília, the capital, she used to wonder if becoming a professional was even viable.
In a country where 47 percent of the population identifies as mixed race, Macario was a triple outlier: a girl with dark skin who played soccer. Discrimination and a lack of opportunities were common. So were insults. She was called a monkey. A lesbian. Just for wanting to play.
“Sadly, I was often the only girl at that time,” said Macario, whose first forays in the sport were games with classmates in a futsal league and on boys’ teams. “It was very much so shamed upon to be a girl and playing soccer.”
She added: “I knew I loved soccer and I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but I would question whether it would even be possible just because of that.”
Less than a decade later, Macario, 21, has carved out a place for herself alongside the top players in the world.
In January, she turned pro, announcing she would forgo her senior year at Stanford University — where she scored 63 goals in 68 games — to sign with the world’s most dominant professional team, Olympique Lyonnais Féminin. Weeks later, her switch in citizenship complete, she made her debut for the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team (and scored in her second game). On Tuesday, she was expected to be named to the United States roster for an important pre-Olympic tournament.
If Macario’s rise continues, and if she can beat out a who’s who of more experienced players — Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Lynn Williams — for a place in the American attack, she could be headed to the Olympics by July, and to a World Cup by 2023.
“I think she is the future of what the U.S. women’s national team wants to be,” Macario’s former coach at Stanford, Paul Ratcliffe, said in a phone interview. “I envision they could build a team around her, that’s how highly I think of her as a player.”
Sometimes, she can hardly believe how far she has come, and how fast.
“To me, I’m essentially just this little kid that’s going to play with the best players in the world,” Macario said in a video call this spring from her apartment in Lyon, France. “It’s a little intimidating, but at the same time, that’s the challenge — that’s why I chose to be here.”
On the ball, Macario is eye-catchingly quick, powerful enough to create space, deft enough to leave defenders grasping at the ones she has vacated. After Macario’s first goal for the U.S. national team, Megan Rapinoe called her a “different kind of player.” Others have placed her on an higher plane: comparing her to Brazil’s six-time world player of the year, Marta.
Even in her childhood, Macario stood out. She says she can’t recall the number of lamps she and her older brother broke while playing soccer in their apartment in Brazil, but she remembers the hours she dedicated to extra training with her father before practices to nurture her talent. It was what she used to answer the discrimination, the obstacles and the people who told her a girl didn’t have a place in soccer, and show them she deserved one “based on what I did on the field.”
“Maybe,” she added, “I’m even better than you.”
When she turned 12, though, a rule barred her from continuing to play with boys in Brasília, where her family was living. Without any competitive girls’ teams as an option, the family took a leap of faith, Macario said, and decided to allow her to move to the United States with her father and brother to secure a better future.
When the family arrived in San Diego, they didn’t speak English, and were grappling with the separation from Macario’s mother, who remained in Brazil, where she worked as a doctor. The long-distance relationship continued for seven years. Her mother still lives in Brazil, with plans to travel to France.
“The one thing that was keeping us together, in a way, was the fact that I was playing soccer and that I was getting better,” Macario said.
A brilliant youth career attracted the attention of top college teams, but there was a constant pressure, she said, to keep going, to make the family’s sacrifices worth it.
Her steep rise from college star to full-time professional was swift after she became an American citizen last October. Hours earlier, she had been called up to her first training camp with the senior national team. But to be eligible to play, she first needed the approval of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. When it arrived in January, the U.S. women’s coach, Vlatko Andonovski, wasted no time bringing her into the fold.
“Of course, as an immigrant to the U.S.A. myself, I understand how special it is to get that U.S. passport, so I’m really happy for her,” said Andonovski, a native of North Macedonia.
Andonovski was in a select group of people from whom Macario sought guidance as she weighed the choice of a career in Europe or in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, where many of her national teammates play. The decision to go to Lyon was Macario’s, but Andonovski told her he supported whichever path she chose as long as her play continued at a high level. “Most important,” he said, “what she is getting in France is training with world-class players every day.”
Moving to Europe is a nontraditional path for most American college players, though increasingly an option for national team stars. While her decision to go and to take on learning yet another language was difficult, Macario said her choice of playing for the United States over her birth country, Brazil, which had pursued her for years, was a simple one.
“I left Brazil for a reason, and that was because my parents wanted a better life for my brother and I,” she said of moving to the United States. “For me, it’s home. It’s where I became who I am today.”
And while the most surprising part of her trajectory — from youth scoring sensation in Southern California to national champion at Stanford to the women’s national team to Lyon — may be the speed with which it took place, she says she knows she still has quite a bit to learn.
“I’m not up to that level yet,” she said of training against international teammates like Lyon defender Nikita Parris or alongside forwards she has long admired, like Lloyd. “During practices, they’re so intense. It almost makes the games easy.”
Now she shares the field with them and others, and she expects to continue to do so for years to come. Looking forward, she said, her goals are simple.
“Win everything,” she said, laughing.
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