Catarina Macario's future was supposed to arrive by the time 2020 gave way to 2021. She would play her final game for Stanford before the year was out, bringing to an end one of the most dominant careers in college soccer history. She would likely become an American citizen, too, a necessary step for the Brazilian-born star to represent her adopted country on the field.
One of the most promising young athletes in American sports would move on to her next act.
Except that 2020 hasn't worked out quite as expected. Most of us can commiserate.
In a world without the coronavirus pandemic, this would have been the first week of the college soccer season -- a season Macario entered as the two-time reigning Hermann Trophy winner. The award presented annually to college soccer's best player has no three-time winners. Macario not only leads active Division I players in both goals and assists, she laps the field. She has scored 63 goals, 21 more than any other active player. She has 47 assists, 13 more than any active player. She could finish with more points this century than anyone but Christine Sinclair.
But there will be no fall season and no NCAA tournament. Macario instead occupies an almost literal limbo, still encamped with her teammates in a local hotel that is their home in the weeks before classes begin for the fall quarter. She waits to find out whether there will be a reconstituted soccer season in the spring, waits to find out whether she will need to decide between a final campaign with the Cardinal or the start of her professional career. She waits to find out when she can take the next steps toward citizenship and eventually the U.S. women's national team.
She waits, trying to focus on the present while the future is on hold.
"When you're in the thick of it and you're constantly doing the same things over and over, I think it's easy to lose sight of why you do what you do," Macario said. "You kind of just go through the motions sometimes. Now I'm being more focused on what I actually want to achieve that day and take it day by day rather than thinking about the future every single day."
Whether or not last season's national championship game will prove to be her final college game makes Macario the most prominent case study for a conundrum college soccer faces with any spring season to replace its lost fall. In announcing the cancellation of fall championships last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert didn't commit to spring replacements but also didn't rule them out. One problem for women's soccer is that the best players are rarely still around by the spring of their senior years. Many purposely plan out their academic schedule to graduate early -- Macario, for example, is on track to graduate at the end of Stanford's winter quarter.
The NWSL draft is typically held in January, regular seasons beginning in April -- right about when a potential college season that would have to accommodate schools in colder climates might hit its stride in 2021. With the addition of expansion Racing Louisville next season, as many as 40 players could have to choose between a college season and a pro opportunity.
"I think the NWSL is going to realize that their bread and butter is all these top players in leagues like the Pac-12 and ACC," Colorado coach Danny Garcia said after the Pac-12 fall season was postponed. "Not that they're going to modify their season, but they're going to look at it like, 'Hey, some of these players are going to show up late, and that's just how it is.'
"I think most every top player in the country is going to want to play their senior year if they have that opportunity in the spring."
Macario might fit that description. She often talks in almost reverential terms about her college experience or the joy of playing with friends. And while a younger teammate, Sophia Smith, declared early for the draft after last season, as did former teammate Tierna Davidson the year before that, Macario returned for her senior season despite having little left to prove on the field.
The difference between that decision and one about the spring is that she previously needed to return to complete her degree, which both she and her father have long described as a non-negotiable goal. It also can't hurt that completing her degree helps her make the case to FIFA that she came to the United States primarily to pursue educational and life opportunities and thus merits a waiver to be eligible to play for the U.S. without a waiting period after obtaining citizenship.
But by next spring, she'll have the degree. Choosing to play for Stanford at that point would be entirely about wanting more time to play with those teammates.
"To be honest, I feel like that part I haven't really thought about it," Macario said this week. "I'm trying to stay focused on school and being a Stanford soccer player for now."
If that is both a predictable and reasonable answer, with no need to publicly commit amidst so many ongoing uncertainties, it also reflects her world view at the moment. Recent months offered scarce few opportunities to plan ahead. They left little choice but to examine her surroundings.
"Now I'm being more focused on what I actually want to achieve that day and take it day by day rather than thinking about the future every single day." Catarina Macario
Macario has a distinctly personal connection to the pandemic. When she moved to San Diego with her father and brother as a teenager, her mother, Ana Maria, remained in Brazil to continue her professional life as a doctor. Macario hasn't seen her mother in person since the pandemic took hold in both the United States and Brazil this past spring. Ana Maria doesn't complain much when the two speak, her daughter said, but it is clear that her mom is working constantly.
"For her, in the front lines against the virus and so many other things, she's worried, of course, of what could happen to her, what could happen to her family," Macario said. "We have faith, we believe in God, we've just kept praying, asking for protection, things like that."
So when Macario talks about being grateful these days for the resources she has at her disposal at Stanford that others may not -- something as basic as reliable wireless to do her work -- perhaps it is more than rote humility. When she talks wistfully about 6 a.m. weight lifting sessions, much to even her surprise, it may be more than reflexive sentimentality.
At some point there will be details about a spring season, and she can make her decision. At some point, she will be called for the naturalization interview and test that were delayed by pandemic-related backlogs. She will interview and, test results willing, become a citizen and seek the FIFA waiver that will allow her to play for the U.S. immediately rather than wait until fall of 2022, five years beyond her 18th birthday.
The future that seemed right around the corner will eventually arrive.
But until it does, a future star lives and waits in the present.
"Even here sometimes it just felt like I was doing the same things, like a robot, and I wouldn't have time to do much other than play soccer and study," Macario said. "I'm glad I've had this time to connect with people and check in with friends and family. Almost just have a time to sit down and reevaluate why I do what I do and the goals that I want to achieve with soccer -- in life, period. Who I want to be."