Youthful Whitehill is now a veteran mainstay

January 16, 2007
By Graham Hays
(Archive)

Life can get confusing when you're a walking reflection of the past, present and future of women's soccer in the United States.

So perhaps Cat Whitehill can be excused for introducing herself as Cat Reddick, before quickly correcting herself, when calling to return an interview request recently.

Whitehill
WireImage / Andy MeadCat Whitehill is a calming influence for the U.S. back line.

Whitehill, who was Cat Reddick until marrying in late 2005, is one of a handful of veterans on the United States women's national team who will make the trip to China for the Four Nations Cup, an annual tournament that serves this year as a prelude to the World Cup in China in September.

She should earn her 100th career cap in the opening game against Germany on Jan. 28, becoming just the 19th player (and seventh defender) in national team history to hit triple digits in international appearances. The achievement would offer a nice opportunity to reflect on a stellar career, if not for the fact that Whitehill won't turn 25 until a week after the tournament concludes.

Teammates Joanna Lohman, Carli Lloyd and Tina Frimpong join Whitehill among the 40 players invited to participate in the team's initial training camp, from which 20 players will be selected to travel to China. All three were born the same year as Whitehill (1982), but combined, they have just 45 caps.

Whitehill, one of the best defenders in the history of college soccer at North Carolina and a mainstay in the center of the United States' back line, is the second-leading U.S. scorer headed to China. With a five-goal outburst in 16 games last season, her 11 career international goals trail only Lindsay Tarpley (Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly and Aly Wagner are all sitting out the Four Nations to rest for the long year ahead).

She is the quintessential center back, rarely drawing attention until, at the very moment you catch your breath as a pass or a strong run appears to leave an opposing player with only daylight to beat, she arrives to clear the ball. Of course, much of her success actually comes from finding the proper positioning to prevent those moments from ever developing, but her trademark calm under fire is an unmistakable sign of experience.

"Being almost to my 100th cap, you have that veteran status, and it's really weird considering I've never felt that way and I'm only 24 years old," Whitehill said. "But it's exciting. It's a new role to embrace. I love these girls and their fresh outlook on the game of soccer."

Four Nations Tournament
Cat Whitehill will be traveling to China with the U.S. women's national team to take part in the Four Nations Tournament.

The absence of Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly from the squad provides an opportunity for the next generation of U.S. women's national team talent to shine through, writes Graham Hays. [+]

A player whose best soccer may still be ahead of her, Whitehill is taking on a new role with an inexperienced group of players trying to impress coach Greg Ryan and earn a spot in the player pool for the rest of the year. Saying she still vividly recalls the feeling of lining up as a 19-year-old newcomer next to legends like Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain, Whitehill finds herself taking the lead in approaching her teammates, knowing the young players around her may be hesitant to ask questions.

"I have found myself helping them out," Whitehill said. "Telling the young players what we learned and what's important to make our defense the best defense in the world. The only way we can do that is by having the depth, and the best way to do that is for us veterans to help them out and show them and tell them what we've learned and how far we've come."

Mentoring the next generation of national team players, while still pursuing her own peak, is fitting for someone who has made the most of a tumultuous period in women's soccer. Whitehill is the most-capped active player to have never played in the WUSA. She was just beginning a senior season in which she ultimately won the Hermann Trophy as the nation's top college player when the league suspended operations in September 2003.

Now she's part of a team that faces an uphill battle in recapturing the attention of the casual soccer fan it claimed during its run to a World Cup title in 1999. (Not only will this year's event be held in a time zone unfriendly to American television, it will take place during the opening weeks of the NFL and college football seasons.) Whitehill said she hopes her teammates, young and old, don't take on the added pressure of saving women's professional soccer even as they battle rapidly improving foes like England and Brazil, in addition to defending champs Germany and other traditional powers.

But she also understands the bigger picture.

Like Julie Foudy before her, Whitehill made a trip to Capitol Hill on behalf of women's sports, testifying in front of a Senate committee in February 2006 in support of Title IX. And while a professional league isn't directly related to the law ensuring equal treatment for female athletes in public schools, it is a logical extension of creating opportunities for female athletes.

"It's extremely important to have a league like the WUSA," Whitehill said. "The development the league did for women -- women as soccer players and for women as just women -- it's amazing the impact it had on people's lives. It's just an incredible opportunity that I hope one day we can get back. It would be so neat to have a league for women's soccer players. I know that there is so much passion out there, and I know that people are still training hoping that one day it will come back."

Already one of the most accomplished defenders in team history, with an Olympic gold medal to her credit, Whitehill heads to China as a mentor with an eye on the future. A future she is helping create and hopes to enjoy for years to come.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.