Stephanie McCaffrey had some experience playing with the Under-23 WNT in 2014 and early 2015, but getting a shot with the senior squad was a much bigger jump. She got her first taste of action with the full team at the 2015 January Camp when she was called up from a U-23 camp. After camp, the team shifted its focus toward the Women’s World Cup and McCaffrey embarked on her first professional season in the NWSL.
“I remember the first time I got the call to join the National Team my heart just dropped,” said McCaffrey. “It’s every young player’s dream to get a shot to play with the National Team and I had decided to not go oversees in hopes that I would get the call. Even though I got released from camp in January and I wouldn’t be in consideration for the World Cup team, it was rewarding because I kind of had done enough in [WNT head coach] Jill’s [Ellis] mind to get a second look.”
McCaffrey’s effort indeed paid off and she found herself back with the team a few months after concluding her first professional season with the Boston Breakers when she was called in for the October matches at the end of the USA’s Victory Tour. After not suiting up against Brazil in Seattle on Oct. 21, Ellis informed McCaffrey that four days later in Orlando, she would be in the match day squad.
“The only information I had gotten from Jill was that I would be on the bench,” stated McCaffrey. “Obviously when you’re on the bench as a player, your two responsibilities are to cheer for your teammates and help the players on the field, and be ready to go in. I just kept those things in mind.”
The U.S. went into the locker room with a 2-1 lead when McCaffrey learned she would make her long-awaited debut.
“We walked in the locker room at half and Jill just said, ‘McCaffrey will go for Tobin on the right,’ and I remember I was excited, I was nervous, I was anxious, but I kept telling myself to be confident because the one way to not play the way you can and to end up disappointed is to play scared,” said McCaffrey. “I had a lot of older players coming up to me and telling me, ‘remember why you’re here, remember what your strengths are and you’ll be fine,’ that really helped.”
The vote of confidence from her teammates proved to be a positive thing for McCaffrey who immediately made her presence felt on the field, controlling the right flank and running at the Brazilian defense to create serious danger. The game went into stoppage time and she had done her job. It was almost over, first cap in the books.
Then something incredible happened. Megan Rapinoe worked her way down the left flank and hit a perfect far-post cross.
“We were in stoppage time, we were up 2-1 against a really good team, so my first instinct was to kill off the game and remember my defensive responsibilities,” said McCaffrey. “I remember Pinoe got the ball in the corner, and I specifically remember she looked up and their defense was shifted over heavily so the back post was open. She played a great ball over the goalie’s head into the open space of the back post and I just kind of busted it as hard as I could to that open space and didn’t get tracked. I had the easy part. It was a tap-in because the service was so great from Pinoe.”
The whistle blew almost immediately following her goal and the stadium proceeded to play videos to honor Lauren Holiday and Lori Chalupny as it was their final game with the WNT. At that moment, McCaffrey’s mind wasn’t on what she had just done, but instead it was focused on spending time with two women she had long admired.
“It didn’t sink in until I sat down in my locker after the game,” she said. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
McCaffrey became the 18th WNT player to receive her first goal in her debut match, following fellow forward Christen Press.
She went on to play in the final four Victory Tour matches last fall and was invited to her second January Camp to begin 2016. This time around, after camp ended, she wasn’t released but instead included on the 20-player roster set to continue Olympic Qualifying on Feb. 13 in Frisco, Texas. Although it was a much different ending for her this January Camp, it was once again, just the beginning.
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup