Sports

Can the USWNT’s Next Megastar Beat the World’s Best Team?

The women’s Champions League final pits America’s next great hope against Europe’s current undefeated juggernaut.

Macario running, pumping her fists, and cheering on the pitch
Lyon’s American forward Catarina Macario after scoring a goal during the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Juventus, at the Groupama Stadium in Decines-Charpieu, France, on March 31. Olivier Chassignole/AFP via Getty Images

The next big star of the U.S. women’s national team faces the biggest challenge of her young career this Saturday in the finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

In her first full professional season, 22-year-old American Catarina Macario has powered European titans Lyon, the most successful club team in the history of women’s soccer, back to the top of the French table and to the precipice of another European crown. She leads her team in goals scored both in the French league and the UWCL. She scored twice in the Champions League quarterfinals against Juventus and twice in the semifinals against Paris Saint-Germain, and thanks to those goals Lyon has returned to the UWCL final, a competition it won five years in a row before falling in the quarterfinals last year. At one point this year, Macario scored in eight straight games for Lyon and the USWNT.

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Her offensive talent is astounding, but her highlight reel skill ever since her days at Stanford is her shooting range, whether it’s from free kicks, off the volley, or pulling up from a distance where defenders still think they’re safe playing off her:

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And if you think that one benefitted from a fortunate bounce, here’s another from less than a month later.

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While last year saw Macario get off to a slow start in her senior national team career—she made the Olympic roster but barely played in Tokyo—in 2022, she’s scored five goals in five games for her country as the USWNT has routed overmatched opponents like Iceland and Uzbekistan. This year she has served largely as a playmaking center forward in the transitional lineups coach Vlatko Andonovski has been experimenting with ahead of World Cup qualifying this summer, serving as a central hub with direct, goal-scoring wingers like Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith, or Margaret Purce on either side of her.

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Macario’s role for Lyon is different. For her club, she benefits from the gravity of one of the greatest forwards of all-time, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who is the all-time leading scorer in the Champions League and the winner of the 2018 Ballon d’Or. Hegerberg returned earlier this season after more than a year on the sideline recuperating an ACL injury, and her chemistry with Macario—who nominally plays behind her in a midfield role—has been a key for Lyon. (Hegerberg also recently returned to Norway’s national team after almost five years of refusing call-ups due to the federation’s treatment of the women’s game.) Macario’s flexibility allows her to toggle between dropping off Hegerberg and surging past her as the situation demands, forcing defenders to pick their poison. Leave Macario free in the box, and you’ll discover that she can do center forward stuff too:

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Joining Hegerberg and Macario in the attack is young French forward Melvine Malard, who has nearly as many league goals as Macario, and has added three goals and three assists in European competition. Behind her, Macario has the support of French legend Amandine Henry and USWNT teammate Lindsey Horan in midfield and France’s World Cup center back pairing of Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy in defense. With two games remaining, the only blemish on Lyon’s league record is a 1–1 draw against last-placed Saint-Étienne. It has scored 74 goals and allowed just 8 in 20 games.

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And it still might not stand a chance Saturday.

Lyon’s opponent in the final, Barcelona, has been so good it makes even Lyon’s preeminence look pedestrian. Of the 30 league games Barcelona has played—there are more teams in the Spanish league than the French one—it has won all 30 of them, allowing just 11 goals and scoring (do not adjust your screens) 159 times. Lyon may be undefeated in its national league so far, but it’s lost in the Champions League to Juventus and Bayern Munich, and in the Coupe de France Féminine to Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona’s one loss all season came in the second leg of a Champions League semifinal against Wolfsburg after it had built a 5–1 lead in the first. The German champions won the return 2–0, but Barcelona had scored two goals in the first 10 minutes of the first leg.

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This season, Barcelona has been as inevitable as an avalanche. It won multiple league games by a 9–1 scoreline. Two weeks ago it won 6–1 despite losing a player to a red card just 10 minutes in. In addition to beating the best team in Germany, Barcelona thumped the English runners-up Arsenal 8–1 over two group stage games and beat rivals Real Madrid 8–3 in the quarterfinals. Last season, it beat English champions Chelsea 4–0 in the Champions League final, the sort of win that, in hindsight, heralds the dawn of a new era. It has taken all comers. No one has even come close. There’s levels to this.

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Macario may be surpassing expectations barely more than a year after joining Lyon, but Barcelona’s leading scorer is the world’s best player. Midfielder Alexia Putellas won the Ballon d’Or in 2021 and is currently the joint-top scorer in the Champions League, but it’s her close-quarters dribbling and eye for eye-of-the-needle throughballs that make her a fitting inheritor to the Barcelona men’s side’s lineage of space magnates. Forward Jenni Hermoso’s long stride allows her to play one-woman games of keepaway with her defenders and then punish them when they overcommit. Norwegian winger Caroline Graham Hansen always seems to be playing at 1.5x speed, whether she’s running past defenders or reacting to loose balls in the box. The Guardian’s December 2021 list of the 100 best players in the world includes six Barcelona starters … in the top 10. Lyon’s roster seems filled with players who used to be among the very best in the world and players who might be soon be the very best in the world. Barcelona is in its prime.

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There is some hope for the challengers, though. Before Wolfsburg, Lyon was the last team to beat Barcelona, winning 3–2 in a preseason friendly tournament in the U.S. in August 2021, with neither team at full strength. It also beat Barcelona 4–1 in 2019 to win the fourth of those five consecutive Champions League crowns, a game Putellas called “one of the most important moments in our journey” in the Players Tribune. “It was like, So, that’s where the bar is, huh?” she wrote. Now Barcelona is the bar, capable of turning even the most storied teams in Europe into longshots.

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Barcelona’s dominance could have a lasting impact on the USWNT too, though that is admittedly relative in a week that finally saw the team achieve the equal pay deal it’s fought for for years. At the 2019 World Cup, the Americans pulled out an unexpectedly nervy 2–1 win against Putellas’ and Hermoso’s Spain in the Round of 16 thanks to a generous penalty call. With the U.S. transitioning from one generation to the next after disappointing at the Tokyo Olympics, in 2023 it will be as vulnerable in a World Cup as it has been in a decade, even if it’s led by a player as talented as Macario.

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The European Championships this summer will establish the biggest challengers to the USWNT’s hopes of a threepeat (along with Olympic gold medalists Canada and hosts Australia). Defending champions and World Cup runners-up the Netherlands will battle hosts England and the old guard of France, Germany, and Norway as they look to build momentum going into next year’s big dance. The Euros are set to be the most exciting and closely contested soccer tournament of the summer—not even a little bit sorry, men of the CONCACAF Nations League—so long as Spain doesn’t obliterate all comers.

If the Spanish team led by its Barcelona stars proves equally irresistible in international competition, then it will become the bar by which Macario and the U.S. have to measure themselves. Living up to that standard could be the young star’s next great challenge.

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