The 2019 season marks Reign FC defender Steph Catley’s 10th year playing professional soccer. Most of her teammates that can boast of the same feat are in their early 30s, but Catley is just 25 years old, having made her pro debut with Melbourne Victory as a 15-year-old in 2009.
Catley recalls how then, Victory manager, Matt Sheppard, who was also the coach of her developmental team at the National Training Centre closely marked her progress.
“I was training with Melbourne Victory since I was 14,” Catley said. “When I turned 15 and I was allowed to play in the league, I got my debut off the bench. It was at Etihad Stadium, which is one of the biggest stadiums in Melbourne, and it was a double-header with the men. It was a massive experience for me. I was so excited. Being 15, you don’t really know what’s going on or how big a moment is, but I look back on it pretty fondly.”
Catley rapidly rose through the ranks of Australian soccer, becoming a regular starter for the Victory in her second pro season. Already a member of the Australian youth national team, she made her senior debut for the Matildas at age 18 in 2012. Since that time, Catley has represented the Matildas at the 2016 Olympic Games and 2015 and 2019 World Cup.
When video game developer Electronic Arts decided to include women’s national teams in FIFA 16, its annual soccer video game, Catley was chosen by popular vote to appear on the cover of the game along fellow Australian Tim Cahill and Leo Messi for the Australian region release, becoming one of the first three women, along with Alex Morgan in the U.S. version and Christine Sinclair on Canadian copies, to appear on the game’s cover.
For Catley, who smiles as she admits that she is not much of a gamer, it was another milestone for not only her personal progress, but the progress of women’s soccer in general.
“It was another surreal moment that I forget about sometimes, since it happened a few years ago,” Catley said. “Then someone will print out the cover and I’ll remember ‘oh, I was on FIFA.’ It was a massive moment for women’s football in general. I remember how excited everyone was for our national team to be in the game and it was surreal playing as ourselves. It was really cool.”
Catley’s quest to be the best caused her to seek challenges overseas. In 2014, she arrived in the United States to play in the NWSL, joining the Portland Thorns. She credits the decision to add playing in the league to her development as a player.
“I think my all-around game has gotten better,” Catley said. “When I came in to Portland, I had been at the top in Australia for a while. I came to America and it was a whole different kettle of fish. It took me a little while to get used to the pace and strength of everyone in the league. My coach at the time was Paul Riley. He said ‘you need to grow, we need more from you.’ He challenged me in a way that no one ever had before growing up in Australia, where I’d already achieved a fair bit. That pushed me to always keep getting better. I think that grew my game in an attacking sense. I got a fair few assists that year and my defensive game felt really sound. I think that triggered something in me to keep pushing.”
After a two-year stint with the Orlando Pride, Catley is now enjoying her second year at Reign FC. She says that the level of familiarity between players, staff and fans at the club is a big part of what she values about the club.
“It’s different because it’s a real family vibe,” Catley said. “Everyone here is so close. The players, the staff and the way the community here in Tacoma has embraced us. It really feels like a home. That’s what makes it special. You come on to the field and you feel like you’re playing in front of friends and family because it’s such a close-knit community. It’s lovely to walk into the changing room every morning and just feel like you’re walking in to home.”
At 25, Catley may be a 10-year veteran of women’s professional soccer, but she admits that she is happy to preserve the spirit of the 15-year-old youngster brought on for her professional debut in Melbourne.
“A lot of it has been a bit like that bright-eyed kid,” Catley said. “Everything that has come has come pretty fast. It’s always been an upward trajectory with me. I’ve been tough and—touch wood—have been pretty lucky with injuries and things like that; I’ve always been able to stay on the park and keep progressing. Everything that comes, I feel so grateful for. When I look back to when I was really little, putting the hours in in the back yard and working my butt off because I had a dream and I wanted to make it come true. Now looking back to that kid doing that, I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved. Hopefully I can keep getting to World Cups and keep doing some cool things with my career.”