Cat Whitehill has seen it all. World Cups, Olympic Games, NCAA championships, leagues rising and falling, the pitch and the broadcast booth, being a player and a coach.
She won two NCAA championships with UNC. She won the most prestigious award in women's college soccer, the Hermann trophy. She won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. She played in two World Cups. She saw WPS come and go, stuck it out in WPSL Elite, and helped transition the Boston Breakers through a mid-season coaching change. That's about as storied a career as they come.
Whitehill came to the Breakers by way of the Atlanta Beat, a side that had its fair share of troubles through its last season before WPS folded. Whitehill was supposed to help shore up a Boston defense that struggled in 2011 despite having the services of Stephanie Cox, Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet, and Aya Sameshima at their disposal. Then the league imploded and 2012 turned into a patchwork quilt of a season that saw the creation of WPSL Elite. Whitehill still signed with the Breakers; after all, her husband would be working as a pediatric cardiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, so while her professional life had taken a swerve, at least her personal life could have that going for it.
Whitehill proved an able leader in 2012, helping guide the Breakers to the top of the league in regular season standings with an 11-3-0 record and a playoff spot. If things surrounding women's soccer in America seemed uncertain, at least within the microcosm of the Breakers back line, everything was ok.
Whitehill returned to the Breakers when they joined NWSL in 2013. The team struggled, dropping points that should have been theirs for the taking. Cat Whitehill was sometimes visibly frustrated in post-game interviews, expressing what the fans were feeling and doing her best to get everyone on the same page.
Then, with four games left to go in the season, the team fired head coach Lisa Cole and asked Whitehill to step in. Where before she was one of the players, their leader and teammate, now she was their boss. She was management, and she was in charge of running practices and setting formations and making game-time decisions (with an assist by Breakers veteran Kristine Lilly.) They went 2-1-1 under her, not quite good enough to limp into the playoffs, but not totally discouraging for the next season and not the worst record for someone who was thrust into it without much warning.
And then 2014. For Breakers fans, it's perhaps best to just let that season lie. Whitehill played in all 24 games for the Breakers, but again they struggled, trying to adjust to a new coach and a new system and enduring a brutal seven away games in a row that saw them absent from their home field for over a month. Whitehill was the assistant coach that year, once again trying to help guide the club towards a smooth transition and a winning formula. The added responsibility admittedly got in her head a little bit, as she told the New England Soccer Journal. But she didn't give up and the team started to knit together towards the end of the season, the back line a little less fraught.
Which brings us to the present. Part of being a great player is knowing when to call time. Beset by injury and already with a big scheduled absence to cover USWNT games in the World Cup this summer, Whitehill announced her retirement from soccer on May 28 after just one game with the Breakers in the 2015 season, a 4-1 loss to Portland.
For nearly 60 games with the Breakers, Whitehill was a reassuring presence in the back line. She was older to be sure, perhaps not as fleet of foot as her glory days with the USWNT seven or eight years ago, but who is? Slowing down is inevitable, and she made up for it with a wellspring of savvy born of experience and a boomer of a shot that could place a ball on a dime from 70 yards.
"I am 33 years old so I knew my time was coming to an end, I just didn't know it would come this abruptly," Whitehill said via e-mail.
It would have been nice to have a sendoff game for Whitehill on home turf, a thank-you for her service as a defender, a captain, an interim manager during a time of upheaval, a mentor, a face for the team. But that wasn't in the cards.
"I am really sad I wasn't able to play a home game here," she said. "The Breakers fans are some of the best in the league and their loyalty has been amazing since the Breakers remained a constant supporter of women's soccer. With my injury, it was just too tough to try and get back. It makes me sad to think I will never play at home again, but I will be in the stands cheering the Breakers on so I will still feel as though I am playing by cheering loudly!"
Whitehill is still busy, though. She's part of Fox Sports' broadcast team for the World Cup in Canada and will be an analyst alongside J.P. Dellacamera and Tony DiCicco. That crew will call every U.S. game as well as the final. "I would love to extend my broadcasting career beyond soccer, yet never leaving soccer," she said. "I want to stay involved in soccer somehow and thankfully broadcasting has helped me with that, but I also love college football and I would love to find a way to broadcast for football or any other sport as well!"
But other than that, Whitehill plans to enjoy retirement. "I don't have any major plans as of now. I am hoping my broadcasting career continues. My sister and best friend are getting married this fall so I am going to be there for them more which is something I wasn't able to do as much during my soccer career and I am excited about that."
I asked Whitehill to reminisce on her time with the team. She sent back the longest answer of our Q&A:
"I have had a lot of great memories as a Breaker. I have loved getting to know my teammates on all the different teams. I have loved learning to be a better leader on and off the field.
The league is younger than other leagues I have been a part of and I have loved watching the youth develop.
I remember playing Portland at Dilboy Stadium and Heather O'Reilly scoring a late game winning goal. I still have her celebration ingrained in my brain because we were trying to make a last minute push for the playoffs (we fell short, but it was a fun couple of games leading up to it).
Playing at Harvard Stadium was pretty cool too because of the traditions of that stadium. I enjoyed traveling to different clubs and playing on the road as a Breaker. I loved representing a club that has been around as long as they have and even though it's closer to a Duke colored blue, haha, I was still proud to wear that jersey every single game."
Boston is proud to have had Cat Whitehill as its center back, captain, coach, and leader too.