Young Goalkeepers On Call For Colombia
EDMONTON, Alberta -- The United States has long been described as the Land of Opportunity, the place where fortunes are made and dreams are fulfilled. That goes for soccer aspirations, too, and nobody knows that better than Colombia international goalkeepers Stefany Castaño and Catalina Perez.
A quick perusal of the Colombia roster reveals several players with ties to the United States, a list that includes defender Nataly Arias, who currently plays for the Atlanta Silverbacks of the W-League, as well as defender Oriánica Velásquez, who played college soccer at Indiana University.
But with Colombia set to face the U.S. women on Monday in a World Cup round of 16 matchup, plenty of eyes will be on the goalkeeper position. Usual starter Sandra Sepulveda is suspended due to yellow card accumulation, leaving Las Cafeteras to turn to either Castaño or Perez. Both players honed their soccer skills for a time in the United States, and on Monday one of them will get the chance to put their "second" country out of the Women's World Cup.
At Sunday's news conference, Colombia manager Fabian Taborda was asked whether he would turn to Castaño -- who started the team's Women's World Cup opener against Mexico -- or Perez. In typical coachspeak fashion, he dodged and weaved his way around the inquiry.
"[We have three] good goalkeepers, which allows us to make different decisions," he said via a translator. "Stefany Castaño is a great goalkeeper. We then have Sandra Sepulveda; she had a very good performance. And if tomorrow we have another one, most likely [Perez] will perform just as well. That gives our staff peace of mind, because we have very good goalkeepers." Of the two, Perez is the one with the deeper U.S. roots. Born in Bogotá, Perez's family moved to Boca Raton, Florida, when she was a young child, and her first forays into youth soccer began when she was 8 years old. For much of her childhood she didn't even know there was a Colombian women's national team. Then she said the team "started winning things and it started coming up in the newspaper. I was like, 'Oh, I want to be a part of it. This is awesome.'"
Perez represented Colombia as a 15-year-old at the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup, and has four caps with the senior team, the most recent of which came in a 2-1 victory over Ecuador back in April. But she knows playing against the United States at a Women's World Cup is something special, both for her and her teammates.
"It's a game I've played in my head thousands of times," she told reporters prior to Friday's training session. "It's what has motivated me throughout my career, so I'm very excited. I really respect and admire everyone on this team because we all have a winning mentality and our dreams are bigger than our fears, and I'm very excited to step on the field with them and play the U.S."
Perez's World Cup dream nearly died about a year ago, when she suffered a torn ACL in her left knee that wiped out her sophomore season at the University of Miami. The road back to playing for Las Cafeteras looked daunting.
"I told her, 'Your goal is to try and get healthy enough to get into national team camp again,'" Miami coach Mary-Frances Monroe said. "That was the goal we set, and she literally got cleared [just before] spring to go back into camp."
Monroe added that Perez has a ferocious work ethic, and topped many of the team-wide fitness tests, a rare feat for a goalkeeper. Monroe also joked that Perez asks so many questions that she has been given a three-question limit.
"She is the best kid, I wish every one of my players was just like her," Monroe said. "She is the fittest kid, so committed, she listens. You almost have to pull her back sometimes. She wants to ask so much because she wants to be better."
Castaño's journey to the United States happened a bit later in life. One of her international teammates, Gisela Arrieta, was a student and soccer player at Graceland University, an NAIA school in Lamoni, Iowa. Castaño asked about playing there, and with the help of a partial scholarship, the player nicknamed "Flaca" -- for "skinny one" -- ended up joining her teammate at Graceland. Castaño's drive in many ways mirrored that of Perez.
"Economically, not all but most of the players who came to us were certainly on the poorer side, so this was their chance," said Fred Wagenaar, who was then the head coach at Graceland but is now head of the women's program at LaGrange College in Georgia. "Maybe that was part of the reason they worked so hard at what they wanted to do. Stefany, I don't remember a day that she wasn't the first to be at practice. She was driven. She was not dirt poor, but she was on the poorer side, for sure. Whether that triggered her resolve, I'm not sure, but she was always first there, last to leave."
In terms of goalkeeping ability, both Castaño and Perez are described by their respective college coaches as good shot-stoppers. Monroe adds that Perez has also excelled in communicating with her defenders, and has improved her positioning, making saves look easy instead of spectacular. Castaño has a slight edge in experience, with eight caps to Perez's four.
The big question is whether either can deal with the barrage of crosses they are sure to see. When Sepulveda was unavailable due to injury for Colombia's group stage opener, a 1-1 draw against Mexico, it was Castaño who got the call, and looked shaky at times. On Mexico's goal, for example, Castaño misjudged a cross and could only parry the delivery onto the bar and into the goal.
"I don't think she played her best game against Mexico. She can do better," Wagenaar said. "When she's on -- just like everyone, especially keepers -- they go through ups and downs. It's almost more of a mental game than a physical game. When she was on her best, she was extremely hard to score on. Her hands would come out of nowhere to block shots. The States are just a massively powerful team. Certainly if Colombia has a shot, she has to do very well."
The same will be true if Perez gets the call. But as she spoke of the upcoming match, there was no trace of fear in her voice or body language. Rather, the game is an opportunity to be embraced.
"I feel like why set limits on what we can do? We can't control outcomes, but we can control our attitude and how we go into the game," she said. "We will give everything we have and prepare in every way to give our best."
And they'll be hoping to fulfill a dream at the expense of the Land of Opportunity.
Graham Hays of espnW contributed to this report.