Stanford soccer's Catarina Macario headlines espnW All-America NCAA team

Stanford Athletics

The race for espnW women's NCAA soccer player of the year was not, in fact, over before it started.

No, Stanford's Catarina Macario needed almost 29 minutes in the season's opening game back in August to demonstrate that the rest of the country was playing for second place.

The Cardinal junior is the award winner for the third time in as many seasons. She led the nation with 32 goals and 23 assists, the first to double up since Kerri Hanks in 2006 -- and even Hanks had to share her lead in goals, while Macario left all competition in the dust.

Only five Division I players ever scored more goals in a season, and Christine Sinclair was the only one to do so in the past 20 years. The same Sinclair who will soon set the world record with Canada for the most goals scored in an international career. The same Sinclair who is one of only two Division I players, along with Mia Hamm, to total more points in a season than Macario.

You get the picture. There has to be a player of the year every year -- it's right there in the name of the award. But also by definition, it's not every year that the best player in the country is the best player of her generation. Macario has at least the potential to occupy that space.

As far as writing the history of the college game goes, she is already there.

It's difficult to know whether it was more impressive that Macario took player of the year honors a season ago, when she battled injuries and was rarely at full strength, or that she lapped the field with her record-challenging run through the Pac-12 and the rest of the country this season.

"She's got the unique combination of athleticism, skill, and she has an IQ about her," USC coach Keidane McAlpine said of a player his team has faced plenty. "She plays with a level of smarts that separates her a little bit. All of those things put together give her a confidence that she can pull off whatever she wants to pull off. I think that part is the part that has made her special.

Which brings it back to the 29th minute of that very first game of the season at Penn State. The game still scoreless, Macario found a pocket of space between Penn State's center backs inside the box. During the ensuing three seconds, without ever moving more than a yard or two in either direction, she kept the ball away from five defenders and found the room to chip a shot over the understandably mesmerized goalkeeper.

Only one player had the imagination to dance between defenders, the technical precision to pull it off and the confidence to try in the first place. After that, everyone was playing for second.

But who joins Macario on the espnW All-America team?

GK Mikayla Krzeczowski, South Carolina

Standing out as a goalkeeper when you only stand 5-foot-6 isn't unprecedented. (Adelaide Gay won a national title with UNC not so long ago and continues in a sustained pro career.) But it isn't anywhere close to the norm. After starting 89 consecutive games during her time at South Carolina, becoming one of only three keepers in NCAA history to record 50 shutouts (16 of them this season), Krzeczowski leaves her successor some giant shoes to fill.

D Emily Fox, North Carolina

It is a good era for college defenders. Kadeisha Buchanan and Emily Sonnett each won espnW player of the year. And if Fox didn't share a stage with Macario, she might join that list. The outside back is every bit as good at her craft as anyone else in recent years. The injury she sustained in the NCAA tournament is hopefully only a temporary obstruction for a fantastic two-way talent who led North Carolina and was second in the ACC with 11 assists in 2019.

D Grace Fisk, South Carolina

There are a lot of talented English players on NCAA soccer fields, but none of them put together a career any better than the three-time reigning SEC defensive player of the year (she shared that award this season). The overtime goal the Gamecocks conceded against Washington State in the NCAA tournament quarterfinal will haunt them, but that was only the eighth goal conceded in 24 games by a team that counted on Fisk's fearlessness and poise.

D Naomi Girma, Stanford

It's difficult enough for a defender to get attention when the back line is a team's main attraction. Try doing it on the nation's most prolific and star-studded team. Girma isn't top billing for the Cardinal, but she's a marquee talent. Only a sophomore, she was a captain for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and goes almost directly from the College Cup to train with the U.S. women's national team as one of only four underclassmen invited.

D Malia Berkely, Florida State

Each player here will be difficult to replace upon moving on. Few will leave bigger cleats to fill than former Florida State center back Natalia Kuikka, the captain of last year's national champion. Berkely managed it so well that she was voted the ACC's defender of the year while playing one of the nation's most difficult schedules. The Seminoles couldn't afford to be without her, and she obliged, missing only 28 of nearly 5,000 possible minutes the past two seasons.

MF Catarina Macario, Stanford

Macario can play anywhere along a front three, but she excelled this season as a No. 10 who could stay high or drop to pick up the ball and run at opponents. The goals get attention, but she led the nation in assists twice in three seasons. Among many stats, entering the College Cup, only eight players in the nation had more assists all season than she had in Pac-12 play alone. She also might well be an All-American if all she ever did was take set pieces.

MF Brianna Pinto, North Carolina

Her season started, at least unofficially, with a brilliant goal in a preseason scrimmage against the reserves from Champions League juggernaut Olympique Lyon. That was far from the only highlight. For all the flashes of excellence as a freshman a season ago, Pinto grew into a more commanding midfield presence as a sophomore. The finishing stands out from a midfielder, goals coming on everything from free kicks to long-distance shots to audacious back heels.

MF Jessie Fleming, UCLA

The numbers tell Fleming's story as poorly as they did for a midfielder like Andres Iniesta. Fleming's ability to control a game from deep in the midfield was unmatched this season and looked like someone who already played in the World Cup and Olympics for Canada. The Bruins wouldn't have reached the College Cup without the gaudy numbers posted by special talents like Ashley Sanchez and Mia Fishel. But Fleming's quiet orchestration was just as key.

MF Deyna Castellanos, Florida State

It might be a stretch to say Florida State coach Mark Krikorian challenged Castellanos to be more of a playmaker after she totaled 26 goals and three assists in her first two seasons. But he at least highlighted an area for growth. Well, Castellanos completed her memorable college career as the ACC's midfielder of the year, posting 12 goals and 11 assists in 23 games this season. She is a natural goal scorer but showed off a mature well-rounded game.

F Elise Flake, BYU

BYU ran into a buzzsaw against Stanford in the NCAA tournament, but that shouldn't tarnish a season that saw the West Coast Conference champions enter that quarterfinal unbeaten. The Cougars were the real deal, and the senior forward at the top of their prodigious attack was the strongest link. Strong and fast but also possessing a soft touch and technical skills, she was one of five players in the country to reach 20 goals and also ranked among WCC leaders in assists.

F Evelyne Viens, USF

Only Macario scored more goals. As if to short circuit any suggestion that her 25 goals were the product of inferior competition, Viens turned the postseason into a senior thesis. She scored nine goals across the final two games of the American Athletic Conference tournament and first two rounds of the NCAA tournament against Florida and Washington. If you're keeping company with Christine Sinclair for productive seasons by Canadians, you're doing something right.