CARY, N.C. — Had any other centerback in the National Women’s Soccer League been chasing her, Cheyna Matthews may have scored against the North Carolina Courage on June 29. Matthews’ Washington Spirit teammate Ashley Hatch served her up on a counterattack, playing the ball right in front of the penalty box so Matthews could run into it and blast a shot into the back of the net.
Matthews took one touch and then suddenly, she lost the ball. From midfield – where she actually fell when the fast break started — Cari Roccaro ran Matthews down, stepped in front of her to steal the ball and then comfortably jogged to the edge of the box to clear it. The Courage went on to win 2-1 in a game where just one of its seven World Cup stars was present. And Roccaro’s defense was a big reason why.
When the World Cup loomed, many around the league wondered if the NWSL reigning champs would be able to fight through June and July without several top players. Who would anchor the defense while Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper were away? Who would create goals while Crystal Dunn and Debinha were in France?
Paul Riley found solutions. Since June 1, the Courage are 6-1-2. They are now just two points out of first place, firmly in a position to make the postseason and defend their title.
But the Courage’s success during the World Cup wasn’t all due to Riley’s X’s and O’s. Players had to step up. They had to seize opportunities. They had to be like Roccaro, who took advantage of the playing time she earned.
“The World Cup gave players like Cari Roccaro a chance to build their platform. You can only give them the carrot, and then they’ve got to take it. She’s taken it, hook, line and sinker,” Riley said. “She’s a valuable piece. To be honest, out of all of the players that have come in unexpectedly, she’s probably the player that’s got the shining star right now. She’s been excellent for us and consistent, and she’s probably in the best form of any player.”
Roccaro, 25, has been playing so well that Riley found it difficult to leave her out of the Starting XI. In addition to centerback, he’s deployed her in the defensive midfield and on the right wing.
It’s a big change from where Roccaro was last season, when she wasn’t fit and wasn’t playing her best. After being a mainstay in the Houston Dash lineup for two seasons, the team that had drafted her in 2016 out of Notre Dame waived her before the start of the 2018 campaign.
‘We’ll give you the environment’
“I’ll be candid,” Roccaro told Pro Soccer USA after a recent training session at WakeMed Soccer Park. “I was on a team that wasn’t allowing me to grow to my fullest potential. Maybe it was the training environment, or my fitness level, or whether the coach believed in me or knew how to best utilize me. But I reconnected with my club coach, who knew where my ceiling was, and he wasn’t going to let me coast or be easy on me.”
That club coach was Riley, who coached Roccaro when she played youth soccer for the Albertson Fury in Long Island, New York. When Riley found out that Roccaro was available, it was a no-brainer for him to take a chance on her, no matter her level of fitness.
He knew what she was capable of at her best.
“It was an easy one for me. I’ve seen her pick a ball up at midfield and pass four players and whack it in the upper 90. I’ve seen that heart, that discipline,” Riley said. “When she came in, I said, ‘We’ll give you the environment. It’s up to you to take the environment and do what you need to do with it.’
“She wasn’t fit when we got her. That was the most important thing, getting her to love the game again and getting her fit. They’re the two things I’ve really concentrated on with her, and she’s back to the Cari Roccaro I knew as a kid.”
Things didn’t turn around immediately for Roccaro when she arrived in Cary. She had trouble getting fit, finding a role and finding playing time. She appeared in just two games last season when the Courage went on their run to win the treble in American women’s soccer.
“I got here and I wasn’t confident, I wasn’t fit enough and my head wasn’t really in the right space, and it showed,” Roccaro said. “So, I pretty much spent the season grinding, knowing how good I could be, but I just had to be patient because we had the best season of all-time. So, I had to adapt to this role of being a team player and helping the team win, not worrying about my individual play.”
It will never show up in a box score, but as Roccaro worked as hard as she could in training, she made others around her better. She wasn’t going to let Debinha and Dunn run circles around her. While Roccaro may have momentarily misplaced her fitness level and confidence, she never lost her competitive edge.
Prior to the start of this season, Roccaro and Riley had a conversation. Coming out of it, they agreed that Roccaro’s goal was to be fit by May and to challenge for playing time when the World Cup players departed.
But Roccaro exceeded those expectations. She was in the 18-man gameday roster for each of the Courage’s first three matches and earned her first start in the fifth game of the season, a road loss to the Chicago Red Stars.
After that, she wasn’t left out of the starting lineup for two months.
‘They can’t sleep on me’
“Literally, my two goals were to just smile every day and grow. That’s the only two things I’ve tried to do, and I’ve played the best soccer I’ve ever played,” Roccaro said. “Night and day, it’s a 180. I’ve never been fitter or felt this sharp. I’ve never felt this confident.”
That’s a big statement for an accomplished player like Roccaro, who played in a pair of U-20 World Cups and was a three-time all-conference player at Notre Dame.
In her nine starts this season, Roccaro has racked up 14 interceptions, two blocks, 12 clearances, 17 tackles, a 66% success rate on duels, an 85% passing accuracy, four key passes and two successful crosses. The Courage are 5-2-2 with her on the pitch.
The Roccaro that NWSL fans are seeing now is the best she’s ever been. Riley agrees.
“She’s got hunger back now. She went through a tough time last year and sacrificed a lot. You want her to be successful,” Riley said. “Not only has she gotten back, but she’s probably exceeded where she was at this point.”
Roccaro might be one of the most versatile players on the team, too.
“She shows well for the ball. She’s technically good. She’s got good range of passing. She’s physical. She can cover ground. She’s mobile. She’s tough. And she’s got all of those tools that you would want in a 6/8, and she can play centerback,” Riley said. “She can probably play any of the back-four positions and the 6 or 8 in the midfield.”
The players who departed for the World Cup are beginning to integrate back into the lineup for the Courage. But a few, such as the four U.S. players, will have to leave the club at various points through the remainder of the season for their victory tour or other friendlies.
But no matter where the hole in the lineup is on a given matchday, Roccaro has shown she can fill it and help the club win. She’s earned the trust of her teammates and Riley, and the respect of opposing players.
And when the full squad is present, she won’t just hand over her starting spot.
“Obviously, we have girls who just started in a World Cup final. I’m not naïve, but I also don’t want to underestimate myself and not give myself the credit for plugging in that hole while they were gone,” Roccaro said. “Once I started to play and get more confident it was, ‘Okay. How I can beat these girls out now?’ I love them to death, but how can I beat them out? I’m not going to give it to them easy.
“They can’t sleep on me at this point.”