“I wasn’t the fastest player, so I had to learn a different tactic. That was from day one.”
Cat Whitehill doesn’t hesitate when analyzing players, not even when it comes to her own game. Some things are just facts, and her relative lack of speed is one of them. But the way she admits it upfront, that’s what earns Whitehill her fans, her own defenders. And maybe this is why Whitehill has earned Fox Soccer’s highest ranking for color commentary on USA games; she’s all Southern charm, but underneath, she’s not afraid to embrace the accurate critique, the art of the smart foul.
Before there was Broon, there was Reddick.
Catherine Anne Whitehill, née Reddick, has plenty of respect for the way the current number four of the U.S. Women’s National Team plays the game too. “I’ve always been more of a cerebral player in that aspect. It’s like Becky Sauerbrunn. If you can read the game and you never have to put yourself into a racing situation, like against an Alex Morgan. She’s obviously faster than me, but I put myself into her path or anticipate where she’s going to go before she goes, or where the ball might be played.”
Whitehill had a distinguished college career, which included being awarded the 2003 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy. Defenders usually don’t get much of the glory, but Whitehill was the player to watch, the probable first draft pick in the upcoming WUSA draft. She credits her time at the University of North Carolina with readjusting how she approached the position. It would take more than just brute strength or raw athleticism.
“I’ll never forget, Bill Palladino (the assistant coach) when I was at school, he told me, ‘You utilize your legs and your butt as much as possible because you can intercept the ball, and keep possession of the ball at the same time when you’re tackling, rather than just slide tackling it out of bounds or giving it away. You have the strength, you have the anticipation of the forward, you’re able to slide in between and maintain possession. That’s way better than slide tackles, and ‘save the day!’”
By the time Whitehill graduated from UNC, the WUSA had folded. Apart from a brief stint with a W-League side in 2005, the national team provided her only chance to compete until the formation of the Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2009.
Whitehill debuted for the USA in July 2000 when she was 18 years old. Her last game representing the United States was in March 2010. Ten years of having her name followed with the modifier, “U.S. Women’s National Team player.” Ten years of being in the small, elite club of women who managed to reach the highest level of the game in America. Ten years in red, white, and blue (and sometimes gold), and then the calls stopped coming.
“It’s a really tough transition. You’re used to certain things. In terms of my career, once I got into the national team, I was always with the national team. To be honest, I didn’t really worry that much about being cut. I should have been, probably, but I was young and naive. I didn’t think I would ever really have to worry that much. After the ACL for me, that’s when it really started to hit home. I think mentally, it really did take a toll. I didn’t realize it until years later.”
Whitehill listed the challenges of trying to recover from injury, of being unsure of where she stood with the coaching staff, even of doubting her own recovery and “not being the player that I once was.” She had forged a career from her body, from knowing how to use it, from being stronger and smarter than her opponents. How do you face the fear that you might never be the same, all because of an injury you couldn’t control?
“That was tough. I think that transition is different for everyone. For me, I personally had to seek help. I saw sports counselors, sports psychiatrists, I saw a counselor, just a general type of situation just to talk it through. I have an amazing support system in my husband and my family, but they’re obviously on my side. They’re biased. You have to talk to someone who doesn’t know everything, and that was one of the biggest things for me.”
The chaser to the bitter shot of being dropped from the national team? Enduring one of the most miserable seasons in American women’s professional soccer, the 2011 Atlanta Beat’s 1-13-4 disaster.
But despite the results, a professional league meant that Whitehill was still on the pitch, and still playing against the best. And she was always learning.
“The sophistication of the forwards got better as I got older. I had to adapt to them. As wonderful as players like Mia [Hamm] and Tiffeny Milbrett, you look at someone like Marta coming in. She redefined the game with her skill set. A lot of young players like Alex Morgan got to watch Marta and see her game. So I had to figure out what is the best way to defend against someone like Marta. I’m not going to beat her with speed, I’m not even going to beat her with speed when she’s dribbling the ball. You had to force her to an unnatural position, which is playing with her right foot. If you can force her into a right foot situation, then you can try to force her into a poor decision, a longer touch or she’d be forced into a pass. But I definitely had to adapt.”
The WPS folded, and Whitehill ended up in Boston in 2012. The Breakers were among a handful of teams who had thrown their lot in with the WPSL, a lower level league willing to form an elite division to try and fill the gap left by WPS. Beyond the Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, and Western New York Flash, there weren’t many challenges, except perhaps signing the requested autographs for star-struck college kids who would line up for Whitehill and Heather O’Reilly.
Professional women’s soccer returned the next year, with the NWSL, and Whitehill stayed put. The first season, Whitehill played in all twenty-two of the Breakers’ games for a total of 1,978 minutes. She was called for seven fouls and one yellow card. She also had to serve as player-coach during the playoff push.
Their first NWSL season was also their best. By 2014, the Boston backline was in disarray. Whitehill was the only constant, and the lack of chemistry (mostly self-induced by coaching decisions) showed. Post-game conferences were awkward affairs, in which Tom Durkin would list the faults plaguing his starting eleven, expounding for ten minutes off the first question. As captain, Whitehill was forced to sit next to him and listen, staring at her hands or off into space.
She was home in Boston, though, and decided to play at least one more season.
After the tone and disappointment of the 2014 campaign, Cat’s return was in no way certain. After the Breakers’ final home game, Whitehill seemed honestly surprised when supporters asked if she would be back the next year. Like plenty of elite athletes, Whitehill has an uncanny ability to put too much blame on herself for results. (She also has a healthy, perhaps even raging, competitive streak. It can extend to comparing the number of steps taken in a day with unsuspecting reporters in the Boston Breakers parking lot.)
“I’m very grateful that even though I wasn’t on the national team, I was still able to play and stay in the league for as long as I did. I stopped playing on the national team in what, 2010? And I played for basically five more years. I loved it and fortunately my husband was cool with it.” Whitehill pauses a little here. She’s doing this interview from the car with her husband as they drive up to Maine for a vacation before the season starts, and she’s clearly said it for his benefit. “I was lucky to be able to live with my husband here in Boston. For many years of our marriage, we didn’t get to.”
But the hoped-for return never materialized. The decision to retire was essentially out of her control. There was no injury on the field, or a career’s worth of bumps and bruises finally taking their toll. Instead, it was a set of wet stairs, a fall, and some broken ribs. Adding up the recovery time and her broadcasting commitments, Whitehill felt she was only getting in the way in Boston’s attempts at turning the season around. The lingering doubts from 2014 didn’t help either.
“It wasn’t going to help the team. When I went through preseason with the team, and I saw our first game in Portland, we weren’t good enough. And I wasn’t going to be the difference, I wasn’t going to help this team enough. My heart wasn’t 100% in it, and I knew they could use my salary to bring in help.”
The Breakers didn’t use the money saved from Whitehill’s salary in a way that changed the direction of the season. Instead they limped into last place (with four wins, this was not exactly an Atlanta Beat situation, but Shield-winners Seattle Reign FC had nearly three times the points by the close of the regular season). Meanwhile, Whitehill focused on her broadcasting responsibilities with Fox, covering the Women’s World Cup in Canada.
There’s no real career template for professional women soccer players, post-retirement. There are options in broadcasting, media, coaching, moving on to other careers or falling back on college majors. For every Julie Foudy, there’s also a dozen players (if not more) who retired too young to earn a sustainable wage.
By 2016, the Breakers were in the midst of another overhaul, which included hiring head coach Matt Beard and trading Alyssa Naeher to Chicago. During the offseason, Whitehill was at an event with the general manager of the team, Lee Billiard. She told him, “Hey, I just really want to be involved. However you can get me involved, you know, please, I’d love to be back.
It’s clear Whitehill’s aiming for everything in the next stage of her soccer career. She’s still got the Fox gig, but has added on assistant coaching responsibilities and acts as a brand ambassador for the Boston Breakers. That makes her one of the few women on the coaching/administrative side of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Maybe it’s not the rush of playing in a sold-out stadium, but there are perks to the new job. “I miss certain things about it. But I’m really excited about this new phase of my life. I really like talking to the players, I love seeing the different ins-and-outs of the game. ‘If you tell a player, if you do this, it will work.’ And then they do it, and it works.”
Whitehill’s rewards for her wise tactical adjustments, for her ability to adapt, are still there. And she’s still reaching for more.