Catarina Macario announced on Tuesday that she’s removing herself from consideration for the U.S. Women’s National Team squad for the 2023 World Cup. That sentence sucks. Macario is doing so in order to focus on her long-term health as she recovers from tearing her ACL last year.

Macario is a phenom who traveled from Brazil to California, then to Stanford where she starred on a team that included Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma. She then went to Lyon, the most successful women’s club in the world, and excelled for them, leading them in goals in her first full season and winning a Champions League title by handling Barcelona, who were thought of as the best team in Europe.

Anyway, Macario missing a World Cup sucks a lot. But there’s more to it, so let’s discuss…

The Ugly

The careers of footballers are short, and World Cups coming along every four years adds to their prestige. It can be brutal for a player to miss one. Macario is only 23, but was already one of the best players in the world. She’ll be 27 by the time the next one rolls around, but that will likely be the only one she’s played in before hitting 30.

It’s sort of cruel that a player with genuine Greatest of All Time potential could end up appearing in a handful of World Cups, but it’s true. Macario’s path to the U.S., U.S. citizenship and FIFA approval to represent the USWNT took quite some time. Though she moved to the U.S. at 12, she only received confirmation from FIFA to play for the U.S. in 2021.

The Bad

On a personal level, Macario missing the World Cup is sad. For the USWNT, it might be an even bigger blow. Despite Macario last playing for the team in early 2022, the best version of the USWNT attack included Catarina Macario, Mallory Swanson and Sophia Smith. Of those three, only Smith is currently available.

While the U.S. is loaded with wingers and attacking talent – from Trinity Rodman to 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson – Macario’s unique skillset allowed her to be key to making everything work. She’s a brilliant reader of the game and has the skills to play as a winger, center or attacking midfielder or striker whenever she wants, sometimes multiple positions within the same sequence of play.

That effective unpredictability brought a fluidity that no one else can. Lyon used it to perfection in their defeat of Barcelona, and Vlatko Andonovski’s system hit most of its peaks when Macario was in the team. There’s no natural replacement for Macario, and Crystal Dunn might be the closest, but she’ll be playing left back for reasons that we hate.

The Good

I know the above is a whole lot of bad, and there’s really nothing to be typed or read that’s going to make Macario’s loss at the World Cup not stand out at some point. But if there is some shiny silvery lining in any of this it’s that Macario is prioritizing her fitness and long-term health over a short-term goal.

That doesn’t sound like much — and there’s no way of knowing whether she’s sub-50% and far from playing or if she’s 70% and knows the risk of re-injury or more severe injury is high — but it’s huge when contrasted with a few USWNT players.

The much lauded ‘mentality’ of the USWNT has been identified nationally and internationally as an advantage the team has over European opponents. It’s never say die, it’s grit, it’s grind, it’s in your face. And while yes, as Lynn Williams once famously said of the national team, “it’s a bunch of psychopaths on one team,” that’s also had negative impacts.

Whether there’s an expectation or explicit ask is immaterial, the truth is that a lot of USWNT players, present and former, have played through injuries they probably shouldn’t have. Williams herself had chronic issues that eventually led to her hamstring detaching altogether, requiring a lengthy recovery. Julie Ertz just returned to the pitch after nearly two years recovering because she was brought to the Olympics not fully fit, then played lots of minutes en route to a bronze medal. Sam Mewis is still struggling with a knee injury and has played ~135 minutes for club and country since the end of 2021 – and is not expected to play for Kansas City Current this year either.

Macario prioritizing her long term health is an important step for an important player. If this is normalized across U.S. soccer, then this will have a bigger personal and professional impact than a single World Cup.

(Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

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