Women's Soccer by David Kiefer

The Magic of Macario

Photos courtesy of ISIPhotos and the Macario family.

SAO LUIS IS a city of a million on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil’s northeastern state of Maranhao.

Originally an indigenous village, Sao Luis was settled by the French in 1612 and is marked by colonial buildings with distinctive tiles and cast-iron balconies. The Palace of the Lions, home of the state governor, displays French art and furniture. Nearby is the grand 17th-century La Ravardière Palace.

But these lavishly built landmarks contradict one simple fact, that Maranhao is one of the poorest states in Brazil, a country that endured years of military dictatorship and now largely accepts the reality of governmental corruption.

To come from Maranhao to a place like Stanford University is to realize a fantasy, one set forth by Jose and Ana Maria Macario for their daughter. Today, Catarina Macario cruises past palm trees and through the Quad on a fold-up electric scooter. She majors in communication at one of the world’s finest educational institutions and plays soccer better than any college player in the United States.

To be 12 is to be young. But for Catarina Macario, it was old enough to make a life-changing decision.

Catarina Macario

THE E-MAIL THAT arrived in the inbox of Chris Lemay wasn’t unusual. As a coach at one of the strongest youth soccer clubs in the United States, he frequently received messages just like this:

“My daughter is interested in playing soccer in America and we’re coming for a visit.”

Lemay, the under-14 girls’ coach of the San Diego Surf, was cordial: “Sure, we’d be happy to have your daughter come out and join us for a training session.”

He also was skeptical. Nearly every one of these types of correspondences fails to work out.

“To be honest, I responded and kind of forgot about it,” he said.

Several weeks later, Lemay got another message: “We’re coming.”

When 12-year-old Catarina, father Jose and brother Estevao traveled from Brazil and arrived at the San Diego Polo Fields, they were committed to a life in the U.S. for the long haul. The only question was where?

It was a fall weeknight practice at the massive soccer complex in Del Mar, a suburb that crawls up the canyons and along the dry ridges and mesas north of San Diego. At first, Macario stood on the edge of the field communicating through her own gestures and with help of the translations of player Bianca Caetano-Ferrara, who spoke Portuguese. Eventually, Catarina asked if she could join the other girls. Lemay motioned for her to do so.

Moments after stepping onto the field, a pass came flying toward Macario. She collected the ball cleanly with a fluid crisp motion. The control and elegance of the simple movement suggested mastery.

Lemay was dumbstruck. Macario had been on the field mere seconds and the coach already was amazed at what he witnessed.

“It was so smooth and silky,” Lemay recalled. “I remember thinking, Wait a second … This kid can really play. It didn’t take but one touch for me to go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Seconds later, Macario beat a player on the dribble and fired the ball into the top corner of the net. Even the other players were in awe.

“She took one shot and everyone was like, Oh my gosh, this girl’s good,” Caetano-Ferrara said.

“Now, I’m running, saying, ‘The answer’s yes! We want her!,’ Lemay said. “It didn’t take but 30 seconds.”

When Lemay got home, he told his wife, Tami, “This is the best female soccer player I’ve ever seen.”


Everyone gets better when you play with Catarina, and that’s probably the greatest compliment you can have as a player, that you make everyone around you better. It’s very rare that you get the complete player, and she is the complete player.

Stanford’s Knowles Family Director of Women’s Soccer Paul Ratcliffe

CATARINA CANTANHEDE MELONIO MACARIO is the reigning Hermann Trophy winner as the nation’s best collegiate player. She led Stanford to a national championship as a freshman and is hoping to do it again as a junior.

Macario is threatening every scoring standard in the Stanford record books. She has won some form of a national player of the year award in each of her first two full seasons. But those accomplishments and honors don’t explain the half of it.

They don’t explain the sequence at Washington State in which Macario caught a ball on her right thigh, bounced it off her right foot and volleyed, with the outside of her right foot, a dipping shot into the upper left corner for a goal. Three touches and the ball never touched the ground.

“It just kind of happened,” Macario said. “Sometimes things just, like, happen. That was pretty cool.”

Awards don’t explain the free kick from 30 yards that spun lazily into the upper left corner of the goal against Oregon last year, or the one-two right thigh-full volley strike against the Ducks as a freshman.

Or the stepover, outside-touch right, cutback left, left-footed grounder inside the right post against Penn last month.

“So many goals that she’s scored, I just shake my head,” said Paul Ratcliffe, Stanford’s Knowles Family Director of Women’s Soccer. “She scores so many great goals. Usually, as a player, you remember one highlight goal. She’s got probably 10 already. Easily 10.”

In this year’s opener at Penn State, Macario, in tight quarters inside the box, evaded five defenders before scoring, prompting’s Graham Hays to tweet: “Stanford's Catarina Macario with a goal of the season candidate 17 minutes into her season. Sounds about right.”

“The best creative player I’ve seen in a long time,” Ratcliffe said. “Everyone gets better when you play with Catarina, and that’s probably the greatest compliment you can have as a player, that you make everyone around you better. It’s very rare that you get the complete player, and she is the complete player.”

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IF YOU ASK Catarina, it’s all in the beans.

When Estevao joined his first futebol team at age 6 in Sao Luis, 4-year-old Catarina tagged along. 

“When she saw him playing, she told me she wanted to play too,” Jose Macario wrote in an e-mail. “I told her she couldn’t. But she insisted. So, I made a deal with her. If she ate beans -- she hated beans -- I would put her in soccer school. 

“She accepted the challenge and started eating beans. So, I had to keep my promise.”

On Catarina’s first day, the boys were surprised to see a girl dressed like them, in a soccer uniform. 

“In 2004 in Brazil, nobody ever thought a girl would be playing soccer, especially with boys,” Jose said.

There is a long held belief in Brazil that the game is not for women and, in fact, it was illegal for women to play until 1979 … 1979! Due to a strong and continuing social stigma, Brazil only minimally supports women's soccer. 

But Macario immediately proved she belonged. Not only that, but she already possessed skills that belied her age, even in comparison to the boys. And she could score goals. No one could finish like her. 

Until Catarina moved to the U.S., she always played with and against boys.

“But also against their parents, since most of them would not accept that their sons were losing to a girl,” Jose said.

And, oh yeah ... “I never ate beans again,” she said.

“Whenever I think of Sao Luis, I always think about my family, my extended family,” Catarina said. “How we did a lot of things together. We’d go to the same church. Afterward, my dad would make this …  what’s it called, cashew? Like, a cashew juice.

“He’d make that juice after church, and after that we’d go to my uncle’s house. Every Sunday, we’d swim in the pool and do a little barbecue: All types of steak, picanha, pork sausage, chicken hearts -- I really like chicken hearts. Brazilian barbecue is the best there is.”

On Saturdays, the family gathered at the farm of Catarina’s uncle or at her grandmother’s. Wherever they went, the day usually involved playing or watching futebol.

“I’d play soccer on the beach, I’d play on the streets, I’d play wherever, honestly, with a multitude of different people, in different environments,” Catarina said.

Estevao remembers playing futsal, a five-a-side form of the game played on courts, during recess. He was in third grade and Catarina in first and they played alongside each other.

“Even then, her talent shone through,” wrote Estevao in an e-mail. “It’s how we made friends with people from our class.”

“Everyone would sprint to the courts, trying to get there first and get a spot,” Catarina said.

The family moved south to Brasilia, a city of 3 million founded in 1960 as the new national capital, when Catarina was 7. Ana Maria began working as a general surgeon, psychiatrist, and proctologist.

The videos Jose shot of her was impressive. Catarina, her curly hair flowing, tracked a ball near the end line, reversed her field and sent a cross to a teammate in front of an open net. The goals, the tangled feet of defenders … 

Her jerseys were too long and her shorts as well, but the talent was unmistakable. On her Santos team, the only girl was the one wearing No. 10. It’s the noblest of numbers, especially in Brazil, where the likes of Pele, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Zico and Neymar donned the iconic jersey.

“There definitely was some friction when she earned that jersey,” Estevao wrote. “But it was undeniable that she had indeed earned the right to wear it, because she was that good.”

As Catarina grew older, her talent forced some hard decisions. At age 12, girls in Brazil no longer were allowed to play on boys teams. That wouldn’t do with Macario’s skills, which far exceeded even those of the boys.

The acceptance and respect she earned in Brazil was compromised as her stature grew and jealousy took hold. After being featured on a television news report, Macario felt isolated and frozen out by her male teammates.

In both school and soccer there was potential that could not be met in Brazil for a family that valued higher education and felt soccer could be the means to reach it. America looked better and better.

I’d play soccer on the beach, I’d play on the streets, I’d play wherever, honestly, with a multitude of different people, in different environments.

Catarina Macario

SOCCER WAS ONLY part of the equation – a big part for sure – but only a part nonetheless.

“Our parents wanted us to have the opportunity to have an education in the U.S.,” Estevao wrote. 

The decision ultimately was Catarina’s, but it meant leaving Ana Maria, whom Catarina considered her best friend. Ana Maria would remain in Brasilia to support the family.

“The main reason we came here was for a better way of life,” Catarina said. “In Brazil, no matter how hard you work, you’re stuck in this endless cycle of poverty. I’m here for the land of opportunity.”

Jose researched the best youth soccer programs online and corresponded with coaches. Catarina was set to join the Dallas Texans and live with a host family, but the Macarios decided to check on one more club, the Surf. The San Diego weather was similar to what they were used to in Brazil, and the club was strong.

When they landed at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, Estevao, who spoke some English, was charged with figuring out what was going around them. Their destination was the site of a Surf tournament, but they didn’t know how to connect with the people they were looking for.

Amidst the tension and confusion, Estevao, only 14, was nervous with so much responsibility and Jose grew frustrated and angry. Hearing cussing in Portuguese got the attention of Bianca’s mother, Eliane, who grew up in Brazil.

“Are you Brazilian?” she asked.

The Macarios felt an immediate sense of relief. Eliane invited them to her home that afternoon, and Catarina and Bianca became close friends. That friendship continues at Stanford, where Caetano-Ferrara is a sophomore and also plays soccer.

The separation from her mother was difficult.

“There were a lot of times when we would cry, from missing each other,” Catarina said. “But everyone knew that it had to be done. One day everything would pay off. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s getting closer and closer.”

Sometimes, that light was hard to find. Only a month and a half after arriving, Catarina wanted to go home.

Her grades were suffering because she had difficulty overcoming the language barrier at school, and while she had incredible soccer skills, the American game was different. It was faster and more physical, not only in terms of fitness, but in terms of contact. There was tackling, and getting knocked down and being targeted. 

“In the first tournament I ever played here, I was thinking, Shoot, I might’ve messed up by coming to America,” she said.

“She wasn’t accustomed to getting hit,” Lemay said. “I think she was a little bit shocked with, these girls are in your face. It was going to be her decision to make: Am I going to adapt or am I going to fizzle out? I felt like she would adapt. That was my gut. But I didn’t know.”

In Brazil, she would beat the boys down the field with her dribbling. They grabbed at her shirt in desperation, and she brushed past them. Here, her confidence was gone.

“We should go back,” Catarina told her father.

She knew a return would be embarrassing and deemed a failure. But staying seemed even harder.

Catarina didn’t know it at the time, but her father also was having second thoughts. Two kids, foreign country, no wife, no ability to communicate … He was scared too.

But Jose knew returning was a mistake.

“No,” he said. “We’re not going back.”

They would stick it out.

“It was going to take a little bit of time,” Lemay said. “I knew she would be a good player regardless of if she adapted or not. But was she going to be special?”

Catarina Macario3

LEMAY DEMANDED A lot of Macario, and she responded. In an Elite Clubs National League semifinal against future Stanford teammate Civana Kuhlmann’s Colorado Rush, Macario scored four goals in a 6-2 victory. In her first full season, she broke the ECNL scoring record, with 50 goals in 24 matches.

In her first year in America, Macario was selected for the U.S. under-14 national team and was named the No. 1 player in the nation for her high school graduating class of 2017.

Eliane helped the Macarios find a place to live, find a school, and buy a car. She treated Catarina like a daughter. Lemay’s wife Tami provided a great deal of support. So did a Brazilian parent at school. 

It took Catarina until her well into her junior year in high school before she finally felt “caught up.”

An ACL injury her sophomore year oddly contributed. The time off from soccer allowed Macario to dig more deeply into school and venture into advanced placement classes. Without the injury, she may not have been confident enough to take on a more difficult academic load. In doing so, Macario put herself into position to be admitted to Stanford.

“I realized I can actually do this,” she said.

Meanwhile, Estevao was thriving too. He now is a student at USC with an interest in film.

If Macario had come to the U.S. any earlier, she may not have developed the full scope of her incredible skills. Had she chosen to return to Brazil, “I don’t think she’s the same player she is today,” Lemay said.

Her Stanford career has been exceptional, and this year has been her best. For the first time, Macario completely embraced offseason conditioning and feels like she’s in the best shape of her life. After 13 matches, Macario was leading the nation in goals (18) and points (46) and Stanford was ranked No. 2 in nation while perfect in the Pac-12 Conference.

“I’m always wary of hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more complete offensive player at the collegiate level,” said Hays, a veteran women’s soccer beat writer.

Though he’s coached World Cup and Olympic champions Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press,  Ratcliffe confidently says, Catarina is “one of the best players I’ve ever coached in my career. If she continues on this trajectory, she will be a top player on the U.S. national team.

“She’s honed her skills. Now, it’s just fine-tuning her game, and getting the opportunities.”

Catarina Macario4

MACARIO HAS MADE it clear that she aims to represent the U.S.

“America’s my home now,” she said. “There will always be a part of me that’s Brazilian. I’ll always hold that close to my heart, but I want to play for the country I feel most at home at, even if I have to wait.”

Caetano-Ferrara, who represented Brazil at the under-17 level, tried to recruit Macario for Brazil.

“She won’t come,” Caetano-Ferrara said. “We tried.”

Macario must be patient. She must complete a long naturalization process before applying for a U.S. passport, and then must be approved by FIFA to compete for the U.S.  

Lemay, now the head women’s coach at Utah Valley University, last coached Macario five years ago, but his high opinion of her has not wavered.

“You can put her in any environment and she can change the scope of the game,” Lemay said. “She’s a good passer, she’s strong, she’s athletic, she’s got great vision. But at the end of the day, she scores goals better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. That’s how you win.

“That’s what Messi does, that’s what Ronaldo does. Those are wild names to throw out there, but that’s what she does. She has similar qualities to those players in the way they can change outcomes of big matches.”

No, Lemay’s first impressions are even stronger than they were after that first night at the Polo Fields.

“I truly believe that she’s going to be the best that ever played the game,” Lemay said. “It’s a bold statement, it’s a big statement, but it’s an honest statement. That’s how good I think she is.”

At Stanford, Macario drifts through defenses as effortlessly as she cruises through campus. It’s a long way from Sao Luis, but Macario seems as if she has found her way.

Catarina Macario5