On the far side of the field, Catalina Usme tore away, sprinting toward the fans. Her Colombia teammates followed in her wake, eating up the ground in the rush to close the ground, to catch her, to celebrate the goal that would — in time — take the country past Jamaica and into the first Women’s World Cup quarterfinal in Colombia’s history.
Linda Caicedo was not among their number. When Usme had coolly converted Ana María Gúzman’s cross to give Colombia the lead, she had turned the other way, toward the coaching area and the substitutes’ bench. She had tensed her arms, hanging low by her sides, clenched her fists, and roared: an expression not of joy or delirium but sheer, unbridled relief, the sound of something being released.
Caicedo’s emergence at this World Cup has not exactly been a surprise. She might only be 18, but her talent has been so obvious, and so prodigious, for so long that she is anything but an overnight sensation. She has long been earmarked as the next big thing: for Colombia, for South America, and increasingly for women’s soccer as a whole.
Her ascent has had a breakneck quality: She played her first senior game for her first club side, América de Cali, at age 14. She made her debut for her country just a few months later. She won one Colombian title by the time she turned 15; she had a second before her 17th birthday.
She has passed milestones at such speed, with such frequency, that it is hard to believe she has been able to take them all in. She made the team of the tournament in the Copa Libertadores at the first attempt. She helped Colombia to the final of the Copa América, finishing as the tournament’s leading scorer.
She played in the under-17 World Cup — Colombia finished second — and the under-20 World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals, almost contiguously. This tournament is, in effect, her third World Cup in a year. To reiterate: Linda Caicedo turned 18 in February. She is younger than all but one of the “Call of Duty” video games.
Hers is the sort of promise that shines so brightly that it attracts almost universal attention. Caicedo has, for years, been courted by a variety of Europe’s major teams: Bayern Munich and Barcelona and Chelsea and all the rest. Earlier this year, she and her mother spent several weeks in Europe, watching games and assessing her potential suitors.
In the end, Caicedo gave her blessing to Real Madrid. Madrid, he world’s biggest club — in the men’s game, anyway — pitched her on the idea that she would be the cornerstone of its attempts to establish a similar prominence for its women’s team. When the club had first made its interest known, Caicedo was not old enough to drive in Spain.
It is not, then, so much that Caicedo is the breakout star of this tournament; she had, in all the ways that matter, broken out long ago. Instead, it is probably better cast as something closer to an inauguration: her goal against Germany, in particular, acted as confirmation that she is the standard-bearer for the coming generation of women’s soccer.
This has been a tournament defined by an overturning of calcified orders. Most immediately, that has been in terms of geography and primacy, whatever the sporting equivalent of geopolitics might be. The United States has been dethroned. Canada was knocked out by Nigeria. Germany was eliminated in favor of Morocco. The tectonic shifts have had the effect of flattening, broadening the game’s landscape.
But there has been a generational shift playing out in Australia and New Zealand, too. As the sun has set on the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan and Marta, so their apparent successors have bloomed and flourished: a group of players in their late teens and early 20s, bookmarked at one end by the 16-year-old Italian Giulia Dragoni and the other by Hinata Miyazawa, the 23-year-old Golden Boot apparent.
The bright spots for the United States all fell into that pool: Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma and Trinity Rodman. Melchie Dumornay, the teenage Haitian, stood out even when cast against England’s highly-polished midfield, one that included the explosive — for good and for ill — Lauren James, 21. Mary Fowler has shouldered much of Australia’s burden in the absence of Sam Kerr. Yet Caicedo stands front and center of that group, one of the sport’s faces of tomorrow.
There is a pressure attendant in that, of course. Caicedo might already have accomplished enough to last a lifetime, but that does not mean her youth is irrelevant. A couple of days after Colombia’s opening game, a 2-0 win against South Korea, she collapsed on the field during a training session, clutching her chest.
The leaders of the country’s soccer federation downplayed the incident, attributing it to the fact that she was simply “very tired.” “What happened was just a symptom of all the stress and physical demands,” a representative for Colombia said, as if that was not worrying in the slightest. “She is well and all is back to normal.”
There is a benefit and a burden to the sort of talent Caicedo boasts. The speed of her rise has had the effect of increasing the weight of expectation. She has achieved so much already, she has passed so many milestones, that there is a demand — internal and external — that the trajectory should continue, that she should speed up, if anything, rather than slow down.
She will not want to stop now, far from it. Colombia is in the quarterfinals. Why not beat England in Sydney and get to the semifinal, since you’re here? Caicedo has always been able to meet whatever challenge she has encountered. That comes at a cost. Her roar after Colombia’s goal, the one that made it another milestone passed, was a necessary release valve, the expulsion of all of the pressure that comes with being the next big thing.