The game Catalina Perez had played in her head “thousands of times” was going even more perfectly than she anticipated.
Fans roared as she and her Colombian teammates stepped onto the field in Edmonton, Alberta, Monday night to play in the Women’s World Cup Round of 16 against the United States — her adopted country, the place she learned to play soccer as a tiny girl in big shorts on a Boca Raton rec team, the place she earned a scholarship to play goalkeeper at the University of Miami.
Perez, 20, soaked in the moment, took a deep breath, and then, filling in for Colombia’s suspended starter, made three spectacular saves in a scoreless first half, including one in the fourth minute that left her tangled on the turf with American idol Abby Wambach.
“I felt so alive and grateful for the opportunity to play in such a big game that meant so much to me as a Colombian-American,” Perez said by phone from Edmonton Tuesday morning. “When I made that quick save, I felt this incredible rush and chills in my body, and I yelled, ‘Yeah!’ like, ‘I AM ready for this! I CAN make a difference in this game!’”
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But two minutes into the second half, Perez’s dream “became a nightmare.”
She raced out of the goal to stop an Alex Morgan breakaway on the edge of the penalty area, went for the ball, and clipped Morgan’s ankle, denying her of a goal-scoring chance. Referee Stephanie Frappart of France pulled out a red card. Perez was dumbfounded.
“It happened so fast,” Perez said. “I knew it was a challenging play. You have Alex Morgan running at you with the ball. I was ball-fixated, focusing my eyes on that ball while my head said, ‘Stay big. Make yourself as big as possible.’ When I tripped her, I realized I may get a card, but didn’t think it was worthy of a red.”
Perez’s heart sank as she trudged off the field, leaving Colombia a player down. She was escorted to a small room, where she watched the remainder of the match on television. Perez’s replacement, Stefany Castano, gave up goals on the first two shots she faced. Team USA won 2-0.
Seeing the drama unfold from the stands were Perez’s parents, Luz Maria and Alejandro.
“It was a very emotional night for us, indescribable,” said Perez’s mother. “From the moment they showed her face on the screen to the national anthems and then seeing her start the game so strong. At halftime, everyone was hugging us and saying congratulations, and we were so excited.”
When the red card went up, the Perez family gasped. “I was so confused, I kept asking, ‘Why? What’s happening? How can they throw her out when she is playing so great? This can’t be happening. It’s not fair. It was so hard for us because we wanted to go down and hug her, and we weren’t allowed.”
They finally got the hug as Catalina got off the bus at the team hotel after the match. She was crying, as were her parents. “I told her, ‘You did awesome. You’re my hero,’” Luz Maria Perez said.
Perez received hundreds of texts and emails of support from coaches and teammates from high school, her club Team Boca, and UM. She said that helped console her.
“I was in shock, and it took a while to accept,” she said. “I had so much momentum, so much adrenaline, and was having so much fun, and to have it end like that. It was not the way I pictured leaving the World Cup.”
Hurricanes coach Mary-Frances Monroe watched the game on TV with her staff and other members of the UM athletic department.
“I was taking pictures of her on the TV screen,” Monroe said Tuesday morning. “It was amazing watching her dream come true. When she made that save in the fourth minute, we all jumped up and cheered. I was rooting for the USA, but I knew they’d have lots of chances, so I was OK with Cat getting a few big saves.”
Perez had called Monroe before the game seeking advice. “I told her to enjoy it, and not think too much, because that’s when she plays her best.”
Monroe said the moment she saw Perez charging toward Morgan, she had a feeling a card was coming. “The ref had been very aggressive with cards, so it didn’t surprise me,” she said. “But Cat played amazing and we are so proud. I sent her a text right after the red card telling her that she played unbelievable against the best players in the world, and that the score was 0-0 with her in goal.”
Perez flies back to Bogota with her team on Wednesday, and said she will use the experience as a springboard.
“I leave this World Cup stronger than I came,” Perez said. “I was pushed in every way, mentally and physically. I am so grateful for the Colombian coaches who gave me this chance, and for all the people who helped get me here. I hope this is just the first of many special memories”