2019 NCAA women's soccer: Florida State's Deyna Castellanos accepts Marta's challenge

Larry Novey

In her first two seasons as a striker, Deyna Castellanos had 26 goals in 33 games. As a junior, she scored 10 goals and helped lead Florida State to the national championship.

Minutes after Brazil's extra-time loss against France in what might have been her final World Cup game, Marta looked into a TV camera and implored a generation to make her life's work count.

"It's wanting more. It's training more. It's taking care of yourself more. It's being ready to play 90 plus 30 minutes," Marta said on the field in Le Havre. "This is what I ask of the girls. There's not going to be a Formiga forever. There's not going to be a Marta forever. There's not going to be a Cristiane. The women's game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more.

"Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end."

The message burrowed deep in Deyna Castellanos' consciousness. That alone didn't make the Florida State senior all that different from most who watched the moment live or as the clip gained viral steam in the days that followed. But if it was meant for two dozen Brazilian women, it resonated equally with the Venezuelan Castellanos.

Colin Abbey

Deyna Castellanos was, according to Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian, talented enough to sign a pro contract out of high school. Now, she's back for a senior season.

"When I saw that, I totally could feel that she was talking to me," Castellanos said. "I'm super sure that people, all the other players, they felt the same way. Seeing Marta giving you that message, of course inspires you, of course makes you feel powerful and try to make the difference. That's what she made me feel when I saw that."

What distinguishes Castellanos is that few are better positioned to answer Marta's call. Latin American women's soccer is nearing a crossroads. Marta will be 34 when the Olympics conclude next year. Another cycle of major tournaments is unlikely. For nearly two decades, even as federations, clubs and cultures failed women collectively on the soccer field, individuals still had Marta for inspiration. She was an example that women in those otherwise soccer-obsessed countries could play -- and play better than anyone ever has.

Replacing Marta will be impossible. It also wouldn't be enough even if it was possible. The women's game across Central and South America needs investment, opportunity and cultural acceptance to progress. But it also needs a new generation of stars who can inspire. Castellanos -- who has a strong record for Venezuela in youth international play, 36 goals in 59 games for Florida State in NCAA women's soccer's best conference, and 1.2 million Instagram followers -- is as promising an heir as anyone.

She won't prepare for that role in Paris, Madrid, London or Portland. For one final season, the place she is most comfortable remains Tallahassee.

Almost as soon as Florida State won its second national championship a season ago, speculation began about Castellanos' future. An NCAA champion and a finalist previously for FIFA player of the year, albeit controversially given her amateur status and accompanying resume, she had little left to prove on college fields.

But in addition to a degree in media and communications, she felt she had plenty left to learn.

"I never considered not returning here," Castellanos said. "Since I got here -- even before that -- I always knew I wanted to have my degree. I always had the option to go pro, but it was never my first option. Being here at Florida State, growing as a person is the most important part. But also having a chance to grow as a soccer player at this level has for sure been the best decision of my life."

Seeing Marta giving you that message, of course inspires you, of course makes you feel powerful and try to make the difference.
Deyna Castellanos

Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian, whose credentials include professional success in the U.S. and a deep international recruiting network, acknowledges that Castellanos could have signed a pro contract out of high school, given she wowed observers as a 14-year-old when she led Venezuela to a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Under-17 World Cup.

That's partly why he professed to have lost nary a minute worrying that she would leave after last season. She chose to play collegiately because that experience mattered to her. It has certainly helped her develop on the field. Castellanos arrived as a goal-hungry striker -- and she was very good in that role, scoring 26 goals in 33 games her first two seasons. Yet it's no coincidence the Seminoles won the title last year when she spent a lot of time as essentially a playmaking No. 10 who combined with talent like Yujie Zhao, who also returns.

"Deyna is a really smart player, besides being skillful and having great quality around the ball," Krikorian said. "She quickly can learn how to use the strengths of her teammates pretty easily. I think last year down the stretch we all saw that. She knows -- we all know -- she's going to get a lot of attention and she needs to pick her moments and take advantage of those when they come. But the other part of it is sharing the ball and sharing the spotlight with the other kids."

Her knack for sharing that spotlight on the field is one part of her development. She's a better player, a more complete player, for her time in Tallahassee. She is something closer to the kind of player who can step into the void when Marta exits, even if Castellanos must do it with a program that has yet to qualify for a World Cup and faces all of the larger issues of unrest and upheaval that Venezuela faces at the moment.

The spotlight shines far brighter on her than on any other college player, let alone any teammate. Every other ACC soccer player put together might struggle to amass 1.2 million Instagram followers. (The other 10 players on the preseason all-conference team had a combined following of around 43,000.)

Amid the requisite vacation shots and "Bottle Cap Challenge" video this summer, Castellanos used a post announcing her return to Florida State to speak out against gender inequality in the women's game. As much as she loves college, she wants future generations of young women to have the same financial and professional options that their male counterparts do.

"I think I have always felt comfortable talking about stuff that I think is important for me, but also for soccer," said Castellanos, who is still eight months shy of her 21st birthday. "I think that I have a pretty big voice with my followers, with people constantly looking for what I say, what I do. For me, gender equality is so important. I don't think in any female sport but tennis we have that. For sure, we'll be really appreciated if we could make that goal for better pay, equal pay -- the same treatment that people give to men."

By her own estimation, the bulk of her followers and her reach at the moment are in Latin America. And beyond pay, equality of opportunity remains a sticking point in the growth of the women's game throughout the region. Professional leagues are almost nonexistent. National teams train sparingly and play friendlies infrequently. At the grassroots level, attitudes persist that the soccer field isn't a place for girls and women. While not as outspoken a critic as someone like Megan Rapinoe, Castellanos is increasingly willing to call out the disparities.

That, too, will be incumbent on those who follow Marta.

"People [in Latin America] need to understand that the female gender is not a weak gender but we are equals," Castellanos said. "Understand that soccer is not a man's sport but it is actually for both genders. That is something sure that I can tell you. We just need to understand that we are the same. and men are not superior to us."

The women's game depends on you to survive. That was Marta's message. Castellanos heard it loud and clear. It explains why she is back in Tallahassee for one more run with the Seminoles.

And why the world awaits after that.

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