It is too soon and too unfair to make comparisons, but even Catarina Macario finds similarities. Like Marta, arguably the greatest women's soccer player of all time and still going strong, Macario was born in Brazil. It was there that both learned to play the game with a particular Brazilian rhythm.
It was Marta who reminded Macario, via a first-person essay the 31-year-old superstar published in August, that growing up in Brazil meant growing up in a culture still coming to terms with passion for a sport crossing gender lines. Macario read Marta's words and heard her own voice.
Not as equals in accomplishment -- not by a long shot -- but as travelers on a similar path.
"I can really relate," Macario said of Marta's words. "It was just really cool, someone I looked up to who had been through the same stuff. So hopefully one day I can be as successful as her."
Macario is off to a good start, such a good start that the Stanford freshman is the espnW soccer player of the year. Although not yet complete because Stanford will play in the College Cup as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Macario's debut season includes 17 goals and 13 assists in 23 games. The goals are tied for fourth in Division I, second to Florida State's Deyna Castellanos among players in major conferences. The assists are tied for the national lead.
"Her finishing ability, bending the ball to the far corner, into the near corner -- she just separates herself with her ability to finish and her first touch."" Paul Ratcliffe
From Kelley O'Hara to Christen Press to Teresa Noyola, former Hermann Trophy winners all, Stanford has been home to some of the best individual talent in college soccer over the past decade. None of those players had a freshman season as prolific in goals or assists as Macario's.
"The amount of goals she's scored is difficult to do for a senior, let alone a freshman," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "That's truly remarkable."
Born in Sao Luis, Brazil, Macario moved to the United States as a teenager because it offered opportunities and acceptance of women's soccer that she couldn't find in her country. With her dad and older brother, she moved to the San Diego area for high school with only her brother speaking much English. Her mother, a physician, remained in Brasilia, where the family had moved from Sao Luis, in order to support the venture financially.
As compelling as her story is, the criteria for player of the year don't include the life story most easily made into a movie script. Nor are the numbers that show up in a box score the sole criteria, as West Virginia defender Kadeisha Buchanan demonstrated when she won a season ago and as Duke's Rebecca Quinn and Stanford's Andi Sullivan made clear -- when not called away on international duty with Canada and the United States, respectively -- in vying for the honor this season as midfielders whose value is often in controlling a field so teammates can enjoy the spoils.
At some point, though, goals and assists are more than fool's gold. At some point, they tell their own story of a player opponents cannot stop from dictating the terms of a game. On a team with the likes of Sullivan, in the mix for a starting role on the national team after coming back from an ACL tear that limited her minutes early in the season, and Tierna Davidson, a sophomore defender who has trained with the national team, Macario isn't the only one who wields that sort of influence on games. But wield it she already does.
"You always need go-to players in big games that can score goals because they also draw attention," Ratcliffe said. "So if they try to double down on her, we have other players who can score goals, and it opens them up. But if they go even with us, and it's single marking, then you know Catarina has the ability to beat that one mark and get a shot on frame and score a goal.
"In the past, with the Kelley O'Haras and the Christen Presses of the world, if you don't double down on them, they're going to be a real threat. I think Catarina is similar to that."
Macario showed the full array of the skills that make her much more than a typical freshman, even a freshman for a national title contender, in a quarterfinal win against Penn State. Barely 90 seconds into the game, she took two quick strides toward a free kick 20 yards from Penn State's goal and sailed the ball past the goalkeeper almost before she began to dive. It was far from the first time she turned a set piece into a highlight.
Midway through the first half, Macario settled a pass that arrived thigh high with a soft first touch that allowed her to immediately turn and drive toward goal from about 35 yards out. With the defense retreating in front of her, she could have exerted a goal scorer's prerogative to shoot. Instead, a pass with perfect weight led teammate Kyra Carusa into a scoring chance she deftly finished.
Finally, late in the opening half, Macario gathered a pass with her back to goal and a defender on her hip at the edge of the 18-yard box. She flicked the ball behind her and spun away from the opponent who tried to grab her jersey in a failed attempt to slow her. The shot went inches wide.
Technique on the ball, awareness of space, physical strength. The best of two soccer worlds. And the things she has been doing all season long.
"When I moved here, the thing that I most noticed was that here it's way more physical," Macario said. "In Brazil, the game was more technical. People used their skills and whatnot. Here it was you have to be fast, and you have to be strong also, so that you don't get pushed off the ball."
Although she hopes to eventually follow Sullivan's lead and play for the United States (without a waiver, FIFA rules would likely prohibit her from playing for the U.S. until she is 23 years old, even if she attains her goal of citizenship before then), there will always be comparisons to Marta. That isn't a fair standard for anyone. Marta was among the leading scorers in a World Cup at 16 years old, the same age at which Macario played high school soccer in San Diego. But at the very least, Macario's effect on college soccer has been as immediately prolific as Marta's arrival on the global scene.
"What separates her is her technical ability but also her brain for the game," Ratcliffe said. "She's a very intelligent player. And then she's a good athlete as well. She definitely has a deceptive change of speed. She looks like she's kind of gliding and cruising with the ball, and then all of a sudden, she just has another gear, and she'll take off. Her finishing ability, bending the ball to the far corner, into the near corner -- she just separates herself with her ability to finish and her first touch."
Macario is a player with a story to tell. But in this case, the numbers tell the story of why she is the player of the year in college soccer.