Premium: Is the Catarina Macario Era Upon Us?
The 22-Year-Old USWNT and Lyon Attacker Has Unlimited Potential and a Remarkable Life Story. But Can She Get the Freedom She Desires—At Home and on the Field? We Went to France to Interview Her.
DÉCINES-CHARPIEU, France — The next manifestation of American women’s soccer greatness trains every day on the site of the last one.
In July 2019, the U.S. won the World Cup at Groupama Stadium, the home of Olympique Lyonnais, European club champion in five of the past six seasons. Two and a half years later, the player who could lead the U.S. to a fifth World Cup title—22-year-old Catarina Macario—is running drills with her Lyon teammates on a cool gray morning at their sparkling practice facility just outside the stadium.
The scene is eye-opening for a few reasons. For starters, joining Macario are some of the planet’s preeminent players—Ada Hegerberg, Daniëlle van de Donk, Delphine Cascarino, Amandine Henry, Kadeisha Buchanan, Ellie Carpenter, Christiane Endler—who turn even the most basic of training exercises into a high-speed symphony of ball movement. But something else also stands out: Lyon’s men’s team, itself a Champions League semifinalist two seasons ago, is training two fields over in the exact same conditions as the women’s team.
Not even fellow Champions League contender Bayern Munich, whose women’s team is based at a location miles away from its men’s squad, can say this: From Lyon’s manicured training fields to its cutting-edge gym and recovery facilities to its pristine locker rooms, the women are treated with the same institutional respect as the men. Lyon’s approach is what led Hegerberg, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, to demand the same from her national team, Norway, and refuse to play for her country until it happens.
And it helps explain why Macario chose to join Lyon 12 months ago. “Even when I came from Brazil to the U.S., that’s been something that I’ve always wanted: equality. People that actually support and value what I’m doing,” Macario tells me during an hour-long interview after practice. “It was in the top of my mind: If I come to Lyon, I know this is what I’ll get. I’ll be taken seriously, and I’ll be training with some of the best players in the world, surrounded by greatness every single day.”
Greatness is an aspiration that has followed Macario from the start. Like Lionel Messi, who moved at age 13 with his family from Argentina to Barcelona to pursue stardom, Macario was just 12 when she left her native Brazil (where she was no longer allowed to play with boys) with her father, José, and her brother, Estevão, to maximize her potential in Southern California’s elite youth soccer system.
And like Serena and Venus Williams, whose father’s extreme influence is the subject of the recent Will Smith film King Richard, Catarina has followed the exacting, loving and sometimes smothering master plan of her dad, which required splitting the family for the past decade as her mother, Ana Maria, a doctor, stayed in Brasília to earn money and support the family’s big bet on Catarina.
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All the Macarios have made massive sacrifices. But with the pressure on at every step, Catarina has produced. “When she was 13, we had U.S. national team scouts at all our games,” says Chris Lemay, her former coach with the San Diego Surf, “and I went on record saying she will be the best player in the world.” At Stanford, where Macario graduated in three years, she won two NCAA titles and two national player of the year awards under coach Paul Ratcliffe, who doesn’t hesitate when I ask him if she can win the Ballon d’Or someday. “Absolutely,” he says. “No doubt in my mind.”
For Lyon, Macario has scored 17 goals in 28 games, 22 of them starts, despite often having to play as a midfielder instead of at her preferred center forward position. That has usually been the case too with the USWNT, which she became eligible to play for by gaining her U.S. citizenship and then her approval from FIFA last January. But U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski recently said he sees Macario’s best position being up top as a withdrawn center forward, a false nine, where she could add quickly this year to her current total of three international goals.
“Catarina has some tremendous qualities,” Andonovski says when I ask him about Macario. “I feel like she can play in attacking midfield anywhere or in any of the three positions up top if we play 4-3-3. But I think the position that fits her best because of those qualities is a false nine. One of the reasons why is she just understands and feels the game. So when she needs to be a nine, she’s going to be a nine, and she’s a predator around the goal. If she gets a ball, she puts it on frame. But when we need her in possession or to establish a rhythm, she can come off the line and help us out.”
“The position that I feel most comfortable at would be a false nine,” Macario says, “just because it’s something I’ve played my whole life. You can still be a midfielder in a way and have little creative things you can play, like a through ball to your teammate, while also being able to finish. I like being able to have the best of both worlds, and I feel like the false nine would be able to achieve that.”
Macario barely played for the U.S. in its bronze-medal performance at last summer’s Olympics, and she was overshadowed in 2021 by the U.S. veterans and storylines like Carli Lloyd retiring at age 39. But Macario begins 2022 with a tantalizing opportunity: to play in marquee European games for Lyon as it tries to regain its crowns in France (from Paris Saint-Germain) and Europe (from Barcelona), and to establish herself as a force for the USWNT as it prepares for this summer’s World Cup qualifying tournament and next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
But here’s the thing about Macario: Despite what many observers, her former coaches and her father might say about her potential, they also say she is extraordinarily humble, sometimes to a fault, especially when she’s with the national team. When I ask Macario what she thinks of people saying she’s the next USWNT superstar, she flashes a smile but asks for some patience.
“It’s a tremendous compliment, like, Wow, thank you for thinking of me like that,” she says. “But I think it’s easier said rather than done, if that makes sense. It’s like, Let’s all just calm down. I just want to have fun playing soccer and trying to get better. And then, of course, if it happens later on, that would be sick.”
“When we came to look at Stanford, I remember [Catarina’s father, José] saying to the coach without any hesitation that she was going to be the greatest player they’ve ever had in the history of Stanford, and they were going to build a statue to her. I always had to translate these things, and I was so embarrassed. Do you hear yourself? Do you know how arrogant that is?” … But I don’t think he was that far off [in the end].” — Estevão Macario
So much is happening for Macario these days. She’s improving by the day and especially excited about playing with Hegerberg, her friend and kindred spirit, who’s her roommate on team road trips. But there’s another roommate on Macario’s mind lately, one who shares her Lyon apartment, one who’s causing some stress from time to time, not just now but over the years as well.
When asked if she likes living in her own place for the first time, she raises her eyebrows. “Well, my father’s here,” she says, “so that’s a whole thing.” She laughs, a bit uneasily. “We have been discussing this quite often lately. Because I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m 22. I need my independence now.’ Like, maybe I’m too nice. But he’s here, and he loves Lyon, loves coming to watch the games. And of course, he has been there with me throughout my whole journey. He’s the one, literally the one, who has pushed me the most to be where I am today.”
You can see the conflict in her eyes. “Aye, yi, yi,” she says.
Estevão Macario, Catarina’s brother, is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and screenwriter who graduated from Southern Cal. He saw the movie King Richard recently and couldn’t help but think of his family’s story.
When they arrived in San Diego exactly 10 years ago, Estevão was the only one who spoke English, thanks to special courses he had taken in Brazil. Starting at age 14, he had the responsibility of interpreting for his father in any number of stressful circumstances: speaking with U.S. immigration officials, setting up a bank account, finding a place to live, and communicating with coaches about Catarina in person and via email.
The Richard Williams vibe is strong in José Macario. “I shouldn’t say this,” Estevão says, “but when we came to look at Stanford, I remember him saying to the coach without any hesitation that she was going to be the greatest player they’ve ever had in the history of Stanford, and they were going to build a statue to her. I always had to translate these things, and I was so embarrassed. Do you hear yourself? Do you know how arrogant that is?” Then again, he adds, “I don’t know the history of the entire program, but I don’t think he was that far off [in the end].”
He’s not wrong. Stanford has had five women’s Hermann Award winners—including Christen Press, Kelley O’Hara and Andi Sullivan—but only Macario has won it twice. As for the statue, well, that’s on hold for now.
José “was very, very, very involved,” recalls Chris Lemay, Catarina’s first coach in San Diego. “He certainly steered every major decision, but all out of a place of support and love. People have said, ‘Like Serena and Venus’s dad? Or Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods’s dads?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, kind of.’ The commitment and the investment into his daughter were similar to those examples.”
In a story she wrote for The Players’ Tribune last year, Catarina expressed her love and gratitude for her father’s support, but she also detailed the friction they’d had, especially during her teenage years, when she thought he was often too critical of her performances, too demanding for her to score goals all the time. When Catarina finally got her driver’s license, she thought she would be able to avoid having to listen to his critiques on car rides, but she revealed that the first time she drove by herself, José tried to hide in the trunk of the car.
“There are so many stories,” she tells me, adding that she and her father have talked things through since then. “He was the one who would force me to get up in the mornings when I was younger, because I just wanted to sleep, to be a kid, to mess around. And he was like, ‘No, you’re too good for this. Go do extra training.’ Whenever I’d feel unmotivated or lazy, he would always be the one to push me. We never imagined that today we would be at the best club in the world.”
Was there ever any doubt she’d choose the USWNT over Brazil? “No,” Macario says. “When you grow up, you start to realize the injustices that are in the world, and you see people actually don’t give a shit about women’s football in Brazil. Or at least they didn’t back then. I think there’s more momentum going for them now, which is amazing to see. But at my time it became an easy decision for me, and still would be now, because I grew up in the United States. It’s where I feel my home is.”