The sound of the ball ricocheting off goalkeeper Caroline Casey’s knees echoes like a slap throughout the Atlantic Club Turf Center in Manasquan, New Jersey. Yet Casey remains unfazed, as her opponents regain possession. The ball heads for goal yet again, but Casey makes a tiny leap into the air and raises her arms above her head so the ball lands safely in her hands instead. “Yeah, Case!,” a teammate shouts before play starts up again during a Sky Blue FC training session.
After this intrasquad scrimmage, Casey heads to the other side of the turf for shooting practice — or, depending on your perspective, blocking practice. For the next several minutes, Casey dips down to the left and right sides of the goal, pushing the ball away with her gloved hands as shots keep coming. She finishes training with visible beads of sweat on her forehead, and finally exchanges a serious expression for a large grin. Today’s training session was a good one.
Casey, 21, plays like a seasoned veteran of the sport, though she’s only a week and a half into her preseason training camp as a professional athlete. A native of Chesapeake, Va., Casey was drafted twenty-ninth overall in January’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft. Her selection by Sky Blue FC has taken her from Virginia, where she attended the College of William and Mary, to the Garden State.
If you ask Casey where she lives, she will still say Virginia Beach. What she really means is that she lives in Point Pleasant, NJ in a tiny detour in what has proved to be a positive adjustment from full-time college student to full-time soccer player, though she has not abandoned her studies. Her days are consumed with soccer, but her nights are spent doing homework to earn a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and Health Science in May.
She speaks quickly and energetically, clearly pleased to be in her own shoes. “I’m enjoying being with the team,” she says. She’s even enjoying the changes from college soccer to the professional level, and Casey will be the first to admit that there are a lot of changes. “It’s the little stuff — how to position yourself,” she says, talking not just of her position on the field, but how to position individual body parts. Casey already feels herself getting better at the small things, and is “really happy” with her progress. That does not stop her from asking goalkeeper coach and former Sky Blue and USWNT goalkeeper Jillian Loyden for extra training that night.
Casey’s transition has made a good impression on Sky Blue head coach Christy Holly. “She’s done quite well,” he says in his very thick Irish accent. Holly is coy about whether or not Casey will get the start come opening day. “We want them to feel like the number one shirt’s still up for grabs,” Holly says, in reference to the competition Casey faces from Caroline Stanley, who played for the Seattle Reign last season.
Holly’s since made the decision and gave Casey the start in the team’s first game of the season. Sky Blue beat Seattle Reign 2-1 on April 17 and made seven saves. Casey was the first rookie goalkeeper to win in the opening match of a season in league history.
Holly has been a fan of Casey since he began looking at the most recent group of draftees. “We began scouting in October,” he says, “and her name kept popping up.” When Holly began his preparations for the NWSL College Draft, Sky Blue had missed out on the playoffs for a second year running. Head coach Jim Gabarra was on his way out, allowing Holly to move up from his assistant coach role. Gabarra’s first choice goalkeeper, Brittany Cameron, began a stint at Japanese club Vegalta Sendai Ladies that was only supposed to last until preseason began in March. Cameron ended up staying in Japan, and Sky Blue was in need of a goalkeeper. Casey’s progression is very good news as the team seeks to rebuild as NWSL reaches unchartered territory as an American professional women’s soccer league that has made it to its fourth season.
In her final season as a college athlete, Casey was named to the All-American first team and awarded the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year. Casey’s goals against average was 0.88. There was every indication that Casey was a top prospect heading into January’s draft. However, Casey had not thought of the idea of playing professional soccer before her final season at William and Mary.
She came back to William and Mary at the beginning of her senior year prepared to graduate and then head to medical school after graduation. Outside of soccer, Casey had found a passion in community service. The list of service work Casey participated in as a student would take up a page. Highlights include local outreach with a sorority and a trip to Nicaragua in the winter of 2014 as a medical volunteer. Soccer would soon be part of her past, or so she thought.
As she started her last year playing for William and Mary, she fell back in love with the game she started playing when she was a kindergartner. “I felt like I was five years old again,” Casey says. Soccer was no longer just something she did. It was something she loved, the same way she loved it when her mother signed her up for it 16 years earlier. That rediscovered passion encouraged her to pursue a professional career.
“I knew I wanted to play more soccer, whether here [in the United States] or in Europe,” Casey says.
Casey was confident in her decision, but many around her did not feel the same. “People said I was throwing four years of school away,” she says. Casey assured them that she would go to medical school eventually, but not before seeing if she could play soccer on a professional level. She was asked: How long will you do this for? “Until I’m not in love with it anymore,” she says.
The United States boasts the greatest women’s national team on the planet. The team holds three FIFA Women’s World Cups and has four Olympic gold medals. But as successful as the United States has been on the international stage, it has been difficult to set up a professional league in the country.
After the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which the United States hosted and won, Americans had never been more engaged in women’s soccer. The timing seemed right to begin a professional women’s soccer league, and so the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was born. But the WUSA could not meet its projected television ratings or attendance goals, and even with players taking pay cuts, the league blew through its $40 million budget in its first season. The money was supposed to last for five seasons. WUSA closed shop in 2003, soon after the end of its third season.
Six years later, Women’s Professional Soccer was created to fill the void the WUSA left. It lasted just as long as its predecessor, succumbing to financial troubles, internal management issues, and a failure to meet United States Soccer Federation (USSF) standards for remaining a top division league.
NWSL was announced just a few short months after WPS folded but it had an added bonus — USSF would be financing the league. Finally, a professional women’s soccer league in the United States would not likely shut down for financial issues. The league began play in the spring of 2013, and on April 17, the league broke unprecedented ground by beginning play for a fourth season, something neither the WUSA nor WPS achieved.
The topsy-turvy history of women’s soccer in the United States is part of the reason Casey never seriously considered a career in the sport until recently. She still has not gotten entirely used to the idea. “On my first day here, I saw [captain and World Champion] Christie Rampone, and I stopped,” Casey recalls, admitting to being starstruck, “but I can’t freak out — she’s my teammate now.”
The first moment she actually felt like a professional was in a warm up match against St. John’s University in early March. She played the second half of a 1-0 win, and was largely untested as her attack-minded teammates ruled the day. “[Being a professional soccer player] didn’t really sink in for me until I heard all of these girls screaming,” she says of the supporters who attended the match.
Casey used to be one of those screaming girls herself. She was always a big fan of the national team and watched all of the matches she could. She looks up to current USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who plays for Orlando Pride.
With one win in the books, Casey’s dream has enjoyed a good start, but the season is long. As long as she keeps feeling like the five-year-old whose mother threw her into the sport, her career may be long too.