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Why it’s time for Catarina Macario to join the NWSL

Catarina Macario won a UEFA Women's Champions League title with Olympique Lyon last year before tearing her ACL. (ANP via Getty Images)

After U.S. women’s national team forward Catarina Macario injured her ACL in June 2022, the common consensus was that she would recover fully in time for the 2023 World Cup, and that if she could compete physically, she’d be on the plane to New Zealand. Macario is a unique talent U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski had begun to build the team’s young attacking core around, before suddenly having to adjust to her absence.

As the weeks before the tournament continue to tick away, however, Macario has yet to return to the field for either the USWNT or her club team, Olympique Lyon. With the World Cup far from a foregone conclusion, the question of whether she’ll be ready to play in July has only grown.

Since graduating from Stanford in 2021, Macario has played in Europe with a great amount of success. But now that she is delayed in her ACL recovery, and trying to make the biggest roster of her still-young career, the scales may have finally tipped in the NWSL’s favor.

The World Cup is worth adjusting for

Macario opted not to enter the NWSL draft in 2021, instead taking her talents to Lyon, one of the giants of European women’s football. The reasons for her decision at the time were all sound: European clubs don’t adhere to a salary cap, meaning they could offer far more in salary to a young player on the rise. It also gave her a chance to control her own destiny based on demand for her skill, something the NWSL’s parity rules threatened to take away from the college superstar.

Macario might have longer-term plans in Europe after a successful run with Olympique Lyon, winning both Division 1 Féminine and the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2022. But the NWSL’s greatest pull in the build-up to the 2023 World Cup is that they are playing league games right now.

Lyon lost their recent Champions League match against Chelsea, limiting the number of games the team has left before moving into the summer offseason. With four games remaining, there isn’t much need for Lyon to rotate Macario in even if she does prove ready for game time before the first week of June. The forward is also currently out of contract with Lyon, which might affect their desire to make sure she is building momentum for the next season.

With her future in Lyon far from certain, a sign-and-loan deal might not be on the table. Alternatively, getting a contract signed quickly in the NWSL could be the difference in getting considerable club minutes.

Andonovski has made it very clear he expects Macario to get playing time in a competitive environment before he’ll consider her for a World Cup spot, a philosophy that Alex Morgan confirmed on this week’s episode of Snacks.

“Vlatko has said something which no coach has ever really come out and said, which is, your club really dictates, right now, if you’re going to make this [USWNT] team,” Morgan told co-hosts Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis. “He’s going to games every weekend, looking at players. I feel like that’s the first time that we’ve had a coach come out and just be like, ‘Yeah, your club play is important, and that’s what’s going to make or break a spot for you.’”

Andonovski has brought players back into camp after long absences so he can either monitor them or get them playing time, but those returns were under club conditions that Macario has yet to achieve. For Macario, giving up a few long-term goals to ensure a smooth transition into competitive games might be worth it if it guarantees a World Cup spot.

Macario has scored eight goals in 17 appearances for the USWNT since 2021. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

What an NWSL entry might look like

Macario’s current situation has been drawn up in contrast to that of USWNT midfielder Julie Ertz, who returned to USWNT camp in April after a multi-year absence. Unlike Macario, Ertz was physically able to play in both of the U.S.’s April friendlies against Ireland, but she hadn’t suited up in an NWSL game in almost two years.

By next week, Ertz will be back in the swing of club play, having signed a one-year deal with Angel City FC in anticipation of joining the USWNT midfield in New Zealand. Ertz has the opportunity to play in up to 12 club matches before internationals leave for camp.

Ertz’s approach could be one that Macario follows, though their avenues to entry might be slightly different. A number of teams would be more than willing to give Macario a one-year contract, but the 23-year-old would have to enter through discovery rather than as a free agent like Ertz. Whether Macario’s rights are already held by a team is unclear, but again the NWSL’s parity rules complicate the young star’s path toward playing time.

“I have been talking to Vlatko, obviously, about the whole situation,” Macario said on CBS Sports last week. “Specifically because my season in Lyon [ends soon] and I’m hoping obviously to play as soon as I can. But, like I said, sometimes with injuries, you just have to be patient, you need to have time and just hope everything heals well.”

One obvious solution would be for Macario to re-sign with Lyon and then immediately complete a short-term loan to OL Reign. OL Groupe, however, is currently looking to divest from their ownership of the Seattle NWSL club, likely dashing any further collaboration between the European side and their North American counterpart.

Another, more permanent option would be for Macario to figure out an entry into the NWSL as a contracted player and sign with a team closer to home. Macario grew up in the San Diego area, and might still be able to find a long-term destination depending on salary cap space and current personnel.

So much of Macario’s future will ultimately depend on when she is physically ready to return to the field. But making the World Cup roster has to be the entire story, not just a subplot. For NWSL fans, it might mean a long-awaited debut.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.