Player of the year watch: More Catarina Macario magic is afoot at Stanford

Courtesy Stanford

Now healthy, Catarina Macario unleashed her artistry last week in Stanford wins over UCLA and USC.

Each week during the soccer season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Sometimes a great soccer goal is just that, a random bit of artistry best enjoyed free of context.

And sometimes the ball carries a message with it into the back of the net. Stanford's Catarina Macario had a reminder for the rest of the sport when she drove her foot through one of the goals of the season in college soccer, a feat that required some good fortune but more skill.

Stanford hasn't caught many breaks this season, which is why watching Macario catch a volley cleanly from 18 yards against UCLA ought to worry a whole lot of folks.

If the Cardinal weren't beatable before, imagine what awaits when things start going right.

The defending champions thrived during the most challenging week on their schedule. Paced by Macario's two goals, they beat No. 16 UCLA on Thursday by the same 3-2 score as the national championship game a season ago. Stanford then beat No. 2 USC 1-0 in overtime on Sunday.

Now 10-0-1 on the season, Stanford's unbeaten streak stands at 33 games, the eighth-longest streak in Division I history and second among schools other than North Carolina.

Yet while no one is going to feel particularly sorry for the Cardinal, who still field a lineup more talented than some countries, 2018 hasn't been easy. First they said goodbye to Andi Sullivan, the Hermann Trophy winner who was back in town last week to train after her rookie season in the NWSL. Then junior Tierna Davidson, the U.S. national team defender, suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Suddenly Stanford was without both college soccer's best player a season ago and arguably its best player this season.

Highly touted freshmen Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma weren't around in preseason because of the Under-20 World Cup. And Macario, the reigning espnW player of the year after she totaled 17 goals and 16 assists as a freshman, wasn't fully herself because of a quadriceps injury. She missed two early games and played fewer than 45 minutes in three others.

With all of that as the backdrop, Stanford then found itself in unfamiliar territory when UCLA converted an early penalty kick for a 1-0 lead Thursday. The Cardinal hadn't trailed all season, hadn't trailed in more than a calendar year. It was, in fact, the first time Macario and the rest of her sophomore class ever looked up at the scoreboard at home and saw the lesser number next to their name. Once more, this wasn't going to be easy.

"We know that we're a good team," Macario said of that unwanted new experience. "And especially because the goal was so early, we knew that it didn't matter, we just had to play our soccer and that we're good enough to come back."

That is certainly true with a healthy Macario around. Barely seven minutes later, the deficit was gone. Macario got on the end of a Madison Haley pass and deftly chipped the ball over the keeper.

Order restored, Macario then reclaimed the lead less than a minute into the second half with a goal that any full-fledged international would be happy to claim. After a UCLA defender headed clear a cross at the post, Macario waited at the edge of the box as the ball descended from its high-arcing path. With a swing of the right leg, not a beat too soon or too late, she drove the ball back into the top corner before it ever touched the ground.

It wasn't a shot many college players could have finished, but no college player is as dangerous from that distance as Macario. Whether taking a free kick, setting herself up or crossing a ball, she is as difficult to deal with as anyone.

"We've been working on it during practice -- not that you can really work on volleys," Macario said. "But that's where I like to be, a little bit outside of the box, so that I'm there for any balls that land right there. I've been working on that, and today I was very lucky that I hit it just right and it went top corner."

Macario couldn't quite replicate the heroics against USC, another long-distance strike kept out of the net by a strong save. And when Smith slotted home the winner in overtime, Macario was the decoy, occupying one defender with her run and letting her impressive freshman teammate do the rest.

That's just fine with the Cardinal, whose greatest strength is having world-class talents they don't have to rely on because of their depth. Macario doesn't have to be the hero every time, she just needs to be an option. And with each passing game, she looks more and more like the player no one could stop a year ago.

"It's early in the season, and it's really just about being healthy for the end of the season," Macario said. "I'm definitely not at the place I would like to be. But every time I step on the field I know that I'm going to give 100 percent of what I have. It hasn't been exactly the easiest season, especially compared to last year."

The easier it gets for her, the more difficult it becomes for any opponent to do what none has for a very long time.

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