Joy and pain for repeat espnW NCAA soccer player of the year Catarina Macario

Jaw-dropping goals became the norm for Stanford sophomore Catarina Macario during the 2018 season. Courtesy Stanford

Few things make Catarina Macario as happy as the days the small goals appear on the practice field at Stanford. Several feet in diameter, the sort that are ubiquitous in backyards and schoolyards everywhere, their presence indicates that the day's training will include the small-side games she craves.

Like kids around the globe, that's the soccer she most often played. Three against three, five against five, or even one against one with her older brother, first in Sao Luis, Brazil, and later San Diego, California. Before uniforms and stadiums, before expectations, there were small makeshift goals and boundless imagination. There is a point to their use at Stanford, to train comfort in tight spaces, but to Macario, those games distill the sport to its most joyful.

Macario's second act at Stanford was a struggle. That never stopped her from having fun.

"I think the Brazilian part of me is that I try not to take things too seriously," said Macario, who moved to the United States as a teenager. "I try to just have fun with it. Obviously it doesn't matter where you are from, but I grew up doing that in Brazil, just playing soccer in the street or whatever. It's just playing. It doesn't matter what it is, whether it's a big crowd or a small crowd, just have fun with it."

There are more tangible reasons that Macario is espnW's national player of the year for the second year in a row. There is sufficient statistical quantity and circumstantial quality to merit the distinction. She produced goals when she played, and she was at her best in big moments. But there are worse tests when sorting through candidates than to seek out the person who makes the game look most fun.

That person is probably doing something right.

Fun wasn't always easy to find for many of college soccer's best and brightest this season, a season defined at times by injuries and international commitments as much as the games themselves. Stanford's Tierna Davidson has missed every game since a hard tackle in September. North Carolina's Alessia Russo was one of many who missed the start of the season because of the U-20 World Cup, in her case with England, but she also missed the end of the season because of a broken leg. World Cup qualifying removed UCLA's Jessie Fleming and Hailie Mace and Tennessee's Bunny Shaw for weeks at a time.

Nor did the soccer gods spare Macario. After leading the NCAA in assists and ranking fourth in goals as a freshman, and then playing with the United States U-23 national team over the winter, she began her sophomore season at Stanford optimistic about building on that accumulated success.

"It can only go up from here," Macario recalled thinking. "And I worked really hard in the offseason to do just that, so that I could come in and be ready and top what I did last year."

She felt fitter than ever. But by the third week of preseason she felt pain in her left quadriceps. The nagging muscle injury it foretold has lingered all season, never severe enough to shut her down for long but never quite cured. She missed the opener and came off the bench in three of her first six appearances. She sat out the final weekend of the regular season, a grudging concession to the importance of the postseason that would follow.

To say she has ever been 100 percent is a stretch, but she played in 18 of 23 games to date as Stanford opens its bid for a repeat national title at the College Cup.

"For the times I've played," Macario said, "I think I've been somewhat effective and helped out my team."

Yes, you could say that. Macrario leads the unbeaten defending champion with 14 goals and is second on the team with eight assists. Only 10 players in the country have more goals, one of them in a power conference. She was named Pac-12 forward of the year for the second year in a row, no small feat opposite the likes of USC's Leah Pruitt and UCLA's Ashley Sanchez.

She scored perhaps the goal of the year in college soccer in a game at Washington State, juggling her way into position to lash a 20-yard shot into the far corner of the goal. That may seem anecdotal as supporting evidence goes, except that the goal in a 1-1 draw proved to be the difference in extending what is now the fifth longest unbeaten streak in Division I history.

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Indeed, Macario made her presence felt at many of the most opportune times this season.

There was the regular-season showdown against UCLA, a rematch of last year's national championship game. When Stanford fell behind for the first time all season in the first half, Macario equalized within minutes on a goal that required a deft chip delivered at full sprint.

And after she said Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe challenged the team at halftime to defend its home, she put the Cardinal ahead to stay with an audacious volley that might have been the goal of the season -- if she hadn't topped herself some weeks later against the Cougars.

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Or there was Stanford's overtime win against North Carolina, when Macario's run to set up the winner -- beating four defenders on a 35-yard jaunt. It might have been more impressive than any of her goals, including this overtime winner on a free kick at Oregon.

Someone with her shooting range and foot skills could be easily forgiven for seeking out goals. Great goal scorers are often greedy. Yet only 15 active players in Division I have more career assists than Macario -- who, as a reminder, hasn't yet completed her second season.

"I feel like it doesn't matter what I do as long as I'm helping out my team," Macario said. "Whether that's a goal or an assist or getting the ball back by defending, no matter what it is, I want to make my parents proud, I want to make my team proud.

"I want to leave no doubt that I'm doing everything I can to help out my team."

Her first game winner of 2018 didn't even count toward this award. Playing with the U-23 team against National Women's Soccer League opponents, sharing the field with the likes of Christine Sinclair, Macario scored both goals in a 2-2 draw against the Portland Thorns, including the tying goal in the 90th minute. (While currently working with an immigration lawyer to obtain U.S. citizenship, Macario, 19, would even then not be eligible to play for the U.S. in international competition until she turns 23, barring a successful appeal of FIFA's residency requirement for naturalized citizens.)

"She's got a unique ability on the ball that's certainly hard to teach," U.S. U-23 coach B.J. Snow said. "She's got extraordinary game sense, in regards to where to pop up in certain areas and to find the ball and impact the game. She's got, obviously, a tremendous flair about her for scoring the big goal at the big moment, and that's a striker's mentality for sure."

Macario didn't need to prove herself this season. Whether as a freshman for the Cardinal or with the U-23 team, she already showed she possesses uncommon skill. She just needed a chance to be herself this season.

The body wasn't always willing, but the mind never wavered.

She won this award a season ago by showing that there is little she can't do on a soccer field.

She won this year by showing there is nowhere she would rather be.

"Every time we come into practice or hang out off the field, it's so fun," Macario said. "I truly mean that. My best friends are on this team. It's a fun time no matter what. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we're practicing and to be in the right mindset, not just joke around."

The best player in college soccer? Look for the one having the most fun.