The 23-year-old midfielder is working her way back from an ACL tear. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Each month in the leadup to the World Cup, Just Women’s Sports will make the case for one player as most essential to the success of the U.S. women’s national team in 2023. Next up: Catarina Macario.

Catarina Macario is exactly the type of player the USWNT needs to provide a spark heading into the 2023 World Cup.

The 23-year-old star is working her way back from an ACL tear, and the national team has lacked depth in her absence. Veteran forward Alex Morgan has taken over at the No. 9 position, but the return of Macario as a false nine could boost the attack as the team looks to win its third consecutive World Cup.

She’s a bonafide scorer, having notched a goal in just her second appearance (and first start) for the USWNT in a friendly against Colombia on Jan. 22, 2021. Since then, she’s started in 11 of her 17 appearances and notched eight goals and two assists – including five goals in five appearances in 2022.

At just 23 years old, analysts have pointed to Macario as the “focal point” of the generational transition for the USWNT. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has even referred to her as the “future of the team.”

“It’s no secret Cat is one of the players who has tremendous potential,” Andonovski said in October 2021. “I personally think she is one of the players I call the future of this team. She’s a very creative player in the role she has with the national team.”

For the most part, Macario has lived up to the hype as she’s continued to develop her game. In February, she earned MVP honors at the SheBelives Cup after burying two goals and adding an assist through three matches en route to the USWNT’s title win.

The two goals earned high praise from some of the USWNT’s all-time best, including Mia Hamm and Megan Rapinoe, and Andonovski said afterward that the goals were “world-class goals.”

“They should be on highlight reels around the world,” he said.

In fact, Macario’s performances in 2022 were so good – including for club team Olympique Lyonnais, which won the Women’s Champions League – that she became one of three American players among the 20 finalists for the prestigious Ballon d’Or award. Two other USWNT players joined her: Morgan and Trinity Rodman.

The absences of Macario and other key pieces of the team’s transition and defense contributed to the USWNT’s struggles late this year, as the team lost three games in a row for the first time since 1993.

Whether Macario returns as a starter or a substitute, as a forward or a midfielder, she can help set the table for the dominating scorers on the front line, among them Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh.

She’s good at creating chances for herself and for her teammates. Macario is in the 97th percentile of dribblers in Europe with 2.52 per 90 minutes, according to StatsBomb. Her 0.33 expected assists per 90 minutes sits in the 99th percent among European forwards.

“She’s got a flair, she’s very creative and she’s got the ability that anyone would want: the ability to create chances to score goals that anyone would welcome on a team,” Andonovski said in 2020.

Fellow USWNT forward Lynn Williams said Macario and Smith together bring a “new freshness” to the team.

“Cat is technically great. Soph will drive at you,” she said. “They have a hunger and a desire to stay here and make a name for themselves, so I’m excited to see them do it.”

Macario also lines up well with midfielder Rose Lavelle, who also plays an instrumental role in the team’s chemistry and attack.

“You need someone like Cat with her precision and technical abilities,” Andonovski said in February. “I thought that when we were able to find her underneath the line, she did an incredible job of unlocking them or creating opportunities for the players around her, so I was very happy with that.

“That’s pure creativity and technical ability, so I’m very happy to see that because I think she has the ability to do that,” Andonovski continued. “The players around will have to get used to those passes or expect those passes so we can make plans to be more dangerous.”

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