Big game full of mixed emotions for UM goalie

Colombia celebrates after upsetting France during the group stage last week. Up next for the Colombians — Team USA.
Colombia celebrates after upsetting France during the group stage last week. Up next for the Colombians — Team USA. Getty Images

Catalina Perez moved from Bogota, Colombia, to Boca Raton with her family when she was 4 years old. Almost immediately, she began begging her parents to buy her a soccer uniform and sign her up in a league.

Her older brother, Jose, was playing, and Catalina didn’t understand why she couldn’t play, too. Her parents were reluctant — especially her mother, Luz Maria.

“In our country, soccer was not a very girlish sport, so I asked her, ‘Why soccer, Catalina? Why not play tennis or something else?’ She insisted on soccer and she never stopped,” Luz Maria Perez said by phone on Saturday from Edmonton, Canada, where Catalina, now a University of Miami goalkeeper and member of the Colombian national team, may be starting against the United States in the Women’s World Cup on Monday night.

Colombia’s starting goalkeeper, Sandra Sepulveda, whose six saves were a key in Las Cafeteras’ shocking 2-0 upset of France on June 13, picked up her second yellow card against England on June 17 and is suspended for Monday’s Round of 16 match. She will be replaced by Perez or Stefany Castano, who plays at NAIA Graceland University in Iowa.

Coach Fabian Taborda was expected to name his starters Monday.

Perez says she will be ready, and honored, if her name is called. Just being on the team is a dream come true, considering that a year ago she underwent surgery for a torn ACL in her left knee and missed the entire UM season.

“It would be extremely special to play because I’ve put a lot of years and sacrifice into this sport, and to be competing to start in a World Cup against a great opponent is an amazing feeling,” Perez said by phone. “It’s been so great to be able to share this dream with my parents, my brother, my UM coaches, my club coaches from Team Boca, and my coaches at St. Andrews [High School]. They are all part of this.”

Perez’ mother and her father, Alejandro, are Colombian. She is a dual citizen and expects she will have mixed emotions during the playing of the U.S. and Colombian national anthems.

“I have a lot of respect for the United States and I appreciate all the opportunities this country has given me and my family, but I’m a full-blooded Colombian,” Perez said. “I feel Colombian in my blood. I love the culture. It’s where my family and heart is, and it’s my first home.”

Her mother added: “Catalina’s blood is Colombian, but her soul is in both countries. Every morning she says the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’ and she grew up in America, so I’m sure it will be a little hard for her playing against America.”

Perez was first noticed by Colombian coaches in eighth grade. A South Florida-based coach saw her at a game and alerted a coach in Colombia, who invited her to a tryout. She went on to play on Colombia’s youth national teams, at St. Andrews High (also played water polo, cross country, and tennis) and earned a scholarship to UM.

Hurricanes coach Mary-Frances Monroe and goalkeepers coach Tim Hart said their biggest challenge was reining in Perez when she pushed herself too hard after surgery.

“Cat is the hardest worker I’ve ever coached, but we needed to tell her to slow down,” Monroe said. “Her goal was to get to this World Cup, so it’s wonderful to see her there. I’ll be rooting for the U.S. against Colombia, but I want Cat to have some good saves, too.”

Hart was in the hospital with Perez when she had her surgery early last July. The first question she asked the surgeon was when she could get back on the field.

“I’ve been around many ACL injuries in my life, including my own, and I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated to sticking with the recovery plan as Cat,” Hart said. “She has a great future ahead of her. She’s extremely athletic, can make spectacular saves. She also loves to learn. She’s already called me four or five times from the World Cup asking me questions about games we’ve seen.”

The Colombian team is eager to face Team USA.

“It is an honor to get a chance to play a country this big,” Colombian coach Taborda told reporters in Edmonton. “This game is so big that it will do wonders for the game in our country regardless if we win or lose. If we win, it’ll be the greatest result in the history of Colombian women’s soccer.

“If we lose, then life will go on and people will still be proud of our accomplishment.”

For Perez, 20, it is another step in what she hopes is a long career.

“I used to take my ball everywhere,” she said. “Now, the ball takes me all over the world.”

USA vs. Colombia

When/where: 8 p.m.; Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton.

TV: Fox Sports 1, NBC Universo.