Steph Catley doesn’t get a lot of time off.
Between the NWSL, which runs from March to September, and the W-League, which runs from November to February, she plays club soccer essentially year round. “It’s been five years back to back,” she says — back and forth from Melbourne to Portland, back to Melbourne, to Orlando, back to Melbourne again, and finally to Seattle. “It can be really hard on your body,” she admits.
When we spoke, a few days after the recent FIFA break ended, Catley had just come back from a four-day vacation in Laguna Beach, California. “[My partner and I] got an Airbnb right on the beach and just really relaxed,” she says. “We played on the beach, went in the water, went to good restaurants. We just chilled.”
After that short break, though, it was back to the grind — first to Seattle for a few days of training, then back East for a game against the Washington Spirit. She’s with the Reign until late July, when Australia plays in the Tournament of Nations. Then it’s more NWSL, and after that, back to the W-League in the fall.
It’s a grind familiar to all of the NWSL’s nine Australian internationals, who come to the states to get reps in between the W-League’s condensed four-month seasons. “The W-League is so short that anybody who’s playing in the national team needs to go over and find games wherever that is, Europe or here,” she explains.
Catley and the rest of her generation of Matildas are a group that represents the first generation of Australian footballers who have had a professional league to play in since their careers began. Catley was 14 when the inaugural W-League season kicked off in 2008; a year later, at 15, she was playing for her hometown team, the Melbourne Victory. All those training sessions, all those games at the professional level, add up to a lot of experience with this game. Still just 23 years old, Catley has already played in two World Cups, an Olympics and three Asian Cups.
And all that experience is part of the reason Catley is, in the words of Matildas and Reign teammate Lydia Williams, “one of the most dynamic fullbacks in the world.”
Catley is a player who epitomizes the concept of a modern fullback, the wide player who both defends and attacks, bombing up the wing to send in balls from wide areas, then sprinting back to defend against opposing wingers.
It’s no coincidence that Catley started as a winger herself, playing up front until her first U-17 camp with the Matildas. “We had a friendly against the Japanese under-17s, and our regular left backs were all injured, so they put me back there,” she remembers. While there was plenty to learn to make the switch, it’s a fairly natural transition. Playing fullback is “almost like you’re a winger. You get so much space to go forward. … I’ve always had coaches that want me to go forward, which is what I love to do, and how I love to play football.”
“I guess I must have done okay,” she says of that initial camp in the back line, “and they definitely saw something there, so I got stuck back there for the rest of my career up until now!” she laughs.
These days, she’s more than okay at the position — she’s probably the best left back in the league, if not the world. On the left side of the field for the Reign, she combines with Megan Rapinoe, making overlapping runs to create overloads out wide. She can serve a ball onto a pinhead from the wing or from deep areas; in August last season when she was still with Orlando, she sent a simply ridiculous service in for Alex Morgan, reading her run and placing the ball so that it bounced perfectly into her path.
— NWSL (@NWSL) August 9, 2017
On defense, she’s one of the toughest one-on-one defenders in the league — and despite her talk of still feeling like a winger at heart, she’s a good enough pure defender that she’s seen some time at center back for the Matildas.
Catley’s career has followed what’s become an archetype for talented Australian players: of the 23-woman Matildas squad called up for the Asian Cup, nine currently play in the NWSL. All eight players in that group who are 25 or younger (Williams is 30) started their W-League careers as teenagers, several, including Catley and Sam Kerr, as young as 15. And Australians are starting to make their way to the NWSL at a young age, too; Ellie Carpenter made her debut for the Portland Thorns shortly after her 18th birthday this spring, and soon became the youngest-ever goal scorer in NWSL history.
“The way I came through the system in Australia,” says Catley, “I think only helped with me getting into the national team early and getting more experience. Now with the national team as a whole, there’s five or six players that came through the system the same time I did … going through the W-League from around 15, 16 years old.”
It’s a career pathway that doesn’t exist yet in the U.S., where the typical route to the pros is through the college system. “I feel it’s a massive benefit for us as a national team, and as young players over here [in the U.S.] and in leagues around the world, I think it’s showing that it’s a good thing.”
Last summer, the talent that system has produced was on full display in the inaugural Tournament of Nations, as Australia won all three of their matches, trouncing Brazil 6-1 and beating the Americans for the first time ever. “That was a big moment for us,” says Catley. “I think it kind of confirmed the hard work we’ve been doing. The U.S. has always been such a powerhouse, and it’s been a struggle for us to kind of catch up and get to a place that on any given day we can actually beat them. I think that’s where we’re at now.”
With a second-place finish this spring in the Asian Cup, the Matildas became one of the first few teams to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. “Obviously that wasn’t the result we wanted with the Asian Cup,” says Catley of Australia’s 1-0 loss to Japan in the final. “We’ve had a goal to win the Asian Cup for the last year or so, when we started doing our goal-setting, so we were pretty disappointed not to get that done considering we played really well on the night. … I think we were on top of them for most of the game and couldn’t score and couldn’t convert our chances, and they could.”
For the time being, though, Catley is focused on the NWSL. The back-and-forth W-League-to-NWSL schedule, these days, isn’t something just Australians take on; lots of NWSL players both from the U.S. and elsewhere are making the same trip to stay sharp over the winter. The Reign have a particularly large contingent who play in both leagues, five of whom, including Catley, played for Melbourne City this winter. That overlap helped ease Catley’s transition from Orlando at the beginning of the season. “Obviously, Jess [Fishlock] and Lu [Lauren Barnes] and Bev [Beverly Yanez], I’ve played with for years, so I know their quality and what they bring to the team.”
And of course, in goal, there’s Williams, the longtime Matildas keeper. “I think we know each other pretty much like the back of our hands,” says Williams. “We both expect the best out of each other, and we’ve seen good times and struggle too, so it’s been really nice to finally get some cohesion, getting to play with her on a couple teams now.”
That cohesion, which Australian players gain in playing with and against each other year-round, has helped turn the Matildas into a world power. “As a team, we’ve come so far, and we’re getting better every single day,” Catley says. “Players are coming with more experience. … I’m excited for us to head over [to France] and hopefully shake things up.”