Cat Whitehill remembers heading from Alabama to her freshman season at the University of North Carolina. She was Cat Reddick then and had no idea she was about to embark on a journey that would eventually take her to a World Cup and earn her an Olympic gold medal. But that freshman year was something of a wake-up call for Whitehill.
“I will never forget my freshman year I came in extremely unfit,” she said. “I came in a kid from Alabama who learned all I could learn but I didn’t learn how to be a fit soccer player. I came in so unfit to Carolina.”
Freshman year at Chapel Hill brought a national championship and much promise for Whitehill. But there was one thing missing. She did not fare well on coach Anson Dorrance’s famous statistical ranking of players that takes into account virtually everything the players do in both games and practices. “I could do well on the technical things but to put it all together, I was second tier when it came to those stats.”
Instead of dwelling on it Whitehill set out to change it. “My whole goal freshman spring was ‘I’m going to get in that top tier.’ I worked really hard that spring. Anson helped me, and my teammates helped me. My sophomore year I came in second to Jenna Kluegel who when it comes to fitness, no one is beating Jenna. So I was really proud of that. And my junior and senior year I was No. 1.”
Whitehill was reminded of this by a recent email Dorrance sent to his alumnus after speaking about his statistics in front of a math class at Duke (Whitehill says she won’t hold it too much against Dorrance for speaking at Duke, the athletic arch rival to UNC.) And she referenced it when asked about an old soccer memory that sprang to mind after she retired from playing last month.
“That time was really what made me the soccer player that I am. Because of that environment and that standard that UNC holds,” she said. “I remember obviously winning national championships and the gold medal. That’s the ultimate. But to look back and see how hard I worked to go from a nobody at UNC and then be at the top of UNC, it’s one of those things that brings a smile to my face.”
The hard work paid off beyond the confines of the University of North Carolina. By senior year, Whitehill was missing significant time to play for the United States as the only college player on the World Cup roster. And ironically, some of the lessons she learned under Dorrance were what made it so poignantly painful to fall short in a semifinal loss to Germany.
“At UNC, Anson really emphasizes the seniors. He reads us letters (about each senior near the end of each season) and says ‘This is the last time these seniors are ever going to play. Let’s play for them.’ And I kind of looked at the Mia’s and the Brandi’s and the Lil’s and the Joy’s and the Julie’s and Bri as my seniors. It was like letting them down.” (That’s Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, and Brianna Scurry if you’re wondering.)
An HBO special that followed the team during the tournament caught Whitehill in an emotional moment soon after the match. And it showed Foudy addressing the team the next day, imploring them to give their best in the dreaded 3rd-place match (they would defeat Canada) and telling them that they were good enough to be on the gold-medal podium the following summer in Greece (they would wind up exactly there).
“To bring them back to Olympic gold medal status, especially because they were still bitter about losing to Norway (in the 2000 gold-medal match), was really fun. Those players deserved to go out on top. They really paved the way for women’s soccer in the U.S. That was an extremely awesome moment. I’ll never forget it. Instead of celebrating in the locker room we were crying. It was one of those glorious moments. We worked really, really hard to get that gold medal and it was an accomplishment that we were extremely proud of and we got to send those players out the right way.”
(Writer’s note: Hamm, Fawcett, and Chastain all ended their international careers in 2004. Lilly and Scurry played on and were part of the 2007 World Cup team that also finished 3rd but neither was on the 2008 Olympic team that repeated as gold medalists.)
Five days before the start of the 2003 World Cup, the WUSA announced it was shutting down. The United States had agreed to host the September tournament on short notice because China was engulfed in a SARS outbreak. The return of the biggest women’s sporting event on earth was supposed to give a boost to the three-year-old league. But it was too late. Investors were already out. Cat Reddick, as she was still known, was almost certainly going to be the first overall pick by the Philadelphia Charge in the 2004 draft.
“Watching the players’ reaction,” she recalled. “They developed it. It was a harsh reality for a lot of them. It was a tough meeting that we had to deal with right before the World Cup. I’ll never forget it. We were in Charlottesville, Va. because we were playing our first game in D.C.”
Whitehill was 21 when WUSA folded and admits now she was not completely aware of the impact of the domestic league going away. “When you’re young like that you’re a bit naïve and you think ‘Oh I still have the national team.’ When you get older you never think that way because every camp you think ‘I hope I get invited.’”
By the time Whitehill made it into a professional league, it was 2009 and she was allocated to the Washington Spirit at the dawn of WPS. In the six years in between, she had suited up for the Charge as part of a WUSA revival festival, played every minute of the 2007 World Cup (another 3rd-place finish), and torn her ACL, causing her to miss the 2008 Olympics. Along the way she also married Robert Whitehill, whose burgeoning career as a pediatric cardiologist eventually led her to Boston.
“In those six years I got married and a lot of things happened in those six years,” she said. “I’m just glad now they have a league because that’s what these women deserve.”
At 33, Whitehill knew at the start of this season that time was running short on her career. “Mother Nature hits you and I was starting to feel as if I wasn’t playing the soccer that I wanted to play.” But she did not expect it to end the way it did when she slipped on some wet stairs and punctured a rib a few days after the Breakers’ home opener. “It’s the worst pain I’ve ever been in. I’ve torn my ACL and completely torn my plantar facia and I’ve never been in so much pain.”
There is no rehab for a busted rib other than rest. When it first happened, Whitehill was even unable to walk her dog. As the weeks rolled on and she mulled her midseason sojourn to call the World Cup for FOX, she finally decided to stop playing soccer.
“It felt like it was time for me. With my ribs and missing these games for the World Cup, I really thought that I was letting the Breakers down as a teammate.”
Whitehill could have been ready to play against Sky Blue on May 22, but that would have meant two games back and then off to the World Cup.
“That would have put Tom (Durkin) in an interesting predicament. He needed to start developing his team to be ready for when I was gone. So just coming back for two games and leaving for five weeks and then coming back.”
“It was a hard decision because I’ve never known not playing soccer.”
Cat Whitehill is going back to the World Cup, this time as a commentator. Her partnership with JP Dellacamera and Tony DiCicco will be calling all of the United States’ matches regardless of where they land in the knockout bracket.
“I still believe they are going to win their group,” Whitehill said of the United States. “Based on their performance against Mexico, they really showed from qualifying and even from Algarve, they’re a lot better than where they were at Algarve in my opinion. The tough part is going to be who is going to start.
“I would put the U.S. definitely in the top four.”
Whitehill says the key to the United States winning will be to score goals. “They’re not finishing easy chances still. Even in the Mexico game they went into the half 1-1 when they should have scored three or four that were pretty obvious. And if they aren’t finishing those, teams like Germany and France and Sweden they’re going to pounce on that.”
She added that the group match against Sweden will be key because—speaking from her 2003 experience—coast-to-coast travel can take its toll. Winning Group D would mean flying from Vancouver to Edmonton and face a 3rd-place finisher in the Round of 16. The runner-up has to go to Moncton (nearly 3,400 miles compared to just over 700) and play on one less day of rest, possibly against Brazil whose final group match is in Moncton.
When the World Cup is over Whitehill will return to Boston, where she will take up a yet-to-be determined roll with the Breakers. And she is bullish on the future of the Breakers and NWSL.
“I’m encouraged by it. Every league is going to have its ups and downs but having the backing of U.S. Soccer is huge. I’ll be honest—in (WPS) every year everybody would leave their team and say ‘I hope we have a league next year.’ In this league that’s not the same conversation. We believe in this league more than we believed in (WPS).”
Week 8 Takeaways
Offensive Blues in KC: FC Kansas City were able to mask their offensive struggles by posting four consecutive clean sheets that allowed them to go 3-0-1 while scoring a total of four goals. But beginning with the end of that run—a scoreless draw against the Flash—they are now 0-2-1 with a single goal scored and have slipped back under .500. The silver linings are a bye this weekend which should allow them to regroup before their next match June 19, and they stand to improve as much as any team once the World Cup ends.
Sky Blue drop more points late: It is not quite desperation time for Sky Blue, but it’s getting there. They dominated the Dash for at least an hour on Sunday but had only a 1-0 lead to show for it. Sure enough they became passive in the final fifteen and conceded a penalty—that Brittany Cameron saved—and later an equalizer. They are winless since opening day and still without a match in which they have scored more than one goal. Worse, last year’s sensation Nadia Nadim has been struggling to the point where coach Jim Gabarra has said she needs to work harder to create space for herself.
Break up the Breakers: Playing seven of eight matches at home is a blessing and a curse. For the Breakers it has coincided with their best soccer in at least two years. Over the first three games of the stretch, the Breakers are 2-0-1 and have buttoned things up in back with only one goal eluding keeper Jami Kranich. They are in Washington this weekend before the World Cup break and then four more at Soldiers Field. They still need to figure out how to score more regularly but credit goes to center backs Kassey Kallman and Julie King for helping to stabilize things after a leaky start to the season defensively.
Boston Breakers at Washington Spirit (Saturday, 7 pm EDT) – The Breakers will try to transfer their home form on the road, where they have been dreadful this season. They’ll have to deal with Crystal Dunn who has a goal or assist in every match she has started in 2015.
Chicago Red Stars at Western New York Flash (Saturday, 7 pm EDT) – The Red Stars will be trying to get to the World Cup break undefeated while the improving Flash will be looking for three points to try and climb into the middle of the pack.
Portland Thorns FC at Houston Dash (Saturday, 8:30 pm EDT) – The Thorns will be looking to snap a five-match winless streak while at the same time returning the favor to the Dash who beat them two weeks ago in Portland despite being statistically dominated.
Sky Blue FC at Seattle Reign FC (Sunday, 10 pm EDT) – The Reign will get Jessica Fishlock back against the team she was red carded against on May 9. Both sides are craving a victory but the stakes are getting high for Sky Blue who are on the brink of losing control of their season.
Here are the latest attendance figures following Week 8:
Portland Thorns FC – 4 games: 13,795 avg. (2014 – 13,362)
Chicago Red Stars – 4 games: 5,481 (2014 – 2,949)
Houston Dash – 3 games: 4,575 (2014 – 4,539)
Washington Spirit – 3 games: 3,583 (2014 – 3,335)
FC Kansas City – 4 games: 3,599 (2014 – 2,018)
Seattle Reign FC – 3 games: 2,571 (2014 – 3,632)
Boston Breakers – 4 games: 2,521 (2014 – 2,437)
Western New York Flash – 3 games: 1,928 (2014 – 3,177)
Sky Blue FC – 4 games: 1,304 (2014 – 1,640)
NWSL Average – 4,524 (2014 – 4,121)
— The Red Stars are now unbeaten in 10 games dating back to last season. The only longer streak in league history was the Reign’s 16-match unbeaten run to open 2014. FC Kansas City went 10 games without losing in 2013.
— Jen Buczkowski played another 90 minutes for FC Kansas City on the weekend and has started all 54 regular season matches in club history.
— Sky Blue and the Thorns are both riding club records for winless streaks. Sky Blue are winless in seven since an opening day win. The Thorns are winless in five—with three straight losses—since starting 2-0-0.
— Jessica McDonald had her penalty saved by Brittany Cameron on Sunday. The Dash are now 3-for-7 from the spot in their history. There was some question as to why Rachael Axon did not take the kick after calmly converting one a few weeks earlier against the Red Stars. According to Dash coach Randy Waldrum, Axon did not feel comfortable taking the kick after being the player fouled in the box.
— Crystal Dunn has quite simply been the best player in NWSL this season. And it’s not particularly close.
— Hidden in Sky Blue’s offensive woes is that budding center back pairing of Kristin Grubka and Lindsi Cutshall. They have developed a nice chemistry and if they both stick around, offer a bright future once Christie Rampone leaves for good.
— Brittany Bock said after Sunday’s match that she feels good but is still not playing the sort of soccer she wants to. Fairly typical for a player returning from ACL surgery. And we’re all looking forward to the Bock-Carli Lloyd-Morgan Brian midfield.
— Sneaky good match Sunday for Kim DeCesare, who has recently earned starter minutes for Sky Blue. She worked hard up top and won balls in the air in both boxes throughout the afternoon.
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