Standing in the tunnel of Memorial Stadium, Caroline Casey looked around as she prepared to take the field for the first time in her professional career.
Lined up in front of her was one of the most decorated players in the game, and beside her was one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
It was like a dream, but one she didn’t even know was possible when she first started out.
Casey, a 22-year-old native of Chesapeake, Virginia, started playing soccer when she was five or six years old, when her parents signed her up for recreation league soccer.
"They thought that's what all the parents are supposed to do, to sign me up for soccer and tee ball and dance and all of that stuff. I guess I just stuck with it and kept doing it," Casey said about her introduction to the sport.
Casey was still in elementary school when the 99ers won the Women’s World Cup for the second time in United States history, creating the first women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. shortly thereafter. But the league was unstable and folded after just three seasons, as did its successor several years later.
Without a stable league in existence during her childhood, Casey didn’t know that that playing professionally was really an option. She knew of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), but as far as she knew, that was the extent of women’s professional soccer.
"I had heard of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and had done book reports on them growing up, but to me, it was just the USA team or nothing else. I didn't really realize what else was out there," Casey said.
Growing up playing soccer, Casey started out the way most goalkeepers do: as a field player. It wasn’t until she was 12 or 13 that she began playing the position.
"The girl on my team who was the goalkeeper, she said she only wanted to play one half, and nobody else on our team wanted to play, so I was like, ‘Fine, guys. I'll do it.’ So I would play in the second half and we would do that for a while and eventually, I think when I was 13 or 14, that's when I started playing the whole game in goal," she said.
While at first she was annoyed that playing goalkeeper limited the amount of time she had on the ball, she soon developed an appreciation for it as she began learning the technique and intricacies of the position.
Casey also soon discovered that her training in dance, which she started when she was three, proved especially beneficial to her skills as a goalkeeper.
"I remember being younger and when they were teaching how to dive and I got it right away. The other girls didn't understand how to fall and that's one of the first things they teach you in dance is how to fall and roll on the floor and be quiet and graceful" Casey explained.
But as she got more and more into goalkeeping, Casey quit dance so she could focus on soccer. During her teens, she played for her club , Virginia Rush, various Olympic Development Program teams and her high school.
At Grassfield High School, Casey was a standout almost from the very start. She was named the team’s MVP and the Southeastern District Keeper of the Year in her sophomore and senior seasons. During her junior year, she was named the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Girls Student Athlete of the Year as she led her team to its first ever regional title. She finished out her senior season allowing in only one goal in district play, earning first-team all-region and first-team Southeastern district honors as well.
While attending a goalkeeping camp in high school, Casey had the chance to hear USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, then a goalkeeper at the University of North Carolina and a counselor at the camp, speak.
"Hearing her talk, that got me really excited. At 13, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going to play college soccer,’" she said.
That dream took her to the College of William and Mary, where she continued exceling in soccer from the very start. She started every game her freshman year, tallying 82 saves and allowing only 14 goals in 20 games played.
During the second semester of her freshman year, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) began its inaugural season, but even with a new professional league in existence, Casey still did not aspire to play professionally, at least not until the summer before her senior year when one of her coaches sat her down and told her that she was good enough to go pro if she wanted.
"That summer I played for the Washington Spirit reserve team, and I think meeting some of those girls and having that experience, within weeks of practicing with them, I called my parents and told them, ‘This is what I want to do. This is awesome, and I’m loving it,’" Casey said. "I tell people I got that feeling when you’re 10 years old again and you’re just running around and all you want to do is play soccer all day. I hadn’t felt that way in a long time, and so, that’s when I know that I wanted to keep playing and was going to do whatever I had to do to make that happen."
That new dream of playing professionally carried into her senior year, where Casey had her best season for the Tribe yet. Serving as co-captain, she led her team to the NCAA college playoffs, where they lost to second-ranked Florida in the second round. She was named a first-team All-American by the NSCAA, Senior CLASS First-Team All-American and CAA Defensive Player of the Year.
In her four years at William and Mary, Casey started in all 78 games that the Tribe played, logging over 7200 minutes for the team. Her 301 career saves is the second highest in Tribe history, and her 29 shutouts is third.
Those numbers were good enough to get her drafted by Sky Blue FC in the 2016 NWSL college draft, and just three months later, Casey was making her professional debut in Sky Blue’s season opener against the Seattle Reign FC.
Lining up in the tunnel before the game, Casey finally realized she was living her dream. Only this time, it wasn’t a dream.
"Hope Solo's standing next to me and Christie Rampone, my own teammate and Captain America, is standing in front of me, and I just kind of had a moment like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real. This is really happening,’" she said.
That realization sent her nerves into overdrive, but she said Rampone was there to help calm her down.
"I remember as soon as they started playing the music, we walked out onto the field. Ma—Christie—just turned around to me and she said, ‘You gotta fake it till you make it. You can do this,’ and I was just like, ‘Okay.’ And from that moment on, it just kind of like melted away and the game went into game mode and I was just super hyper focused for those 90 minutes," Casey said.
But Casey didn’t have to fake until she made it. In just the fourth minute of the game, Casey stopped a shot by Reign midfielder Kim Little, one of the best attacking players in the league. That would be the first of seven saves that Casey made that game, allowing Seattle just one goal as Sky Blue handed them a 2-1 loss, the Reign’s first ever loss at Memorial Stadium.
And at the end of the match, Casey was the better of the two goalkeepers who had stood on that field that afternoon.
"It was very exciting and humbling, and I think that it was definitely a confidence boost, and it came at a great time for me," Casey said of her performance that day. "To have an opportunity to go out there and prove yourself and to prove that you want to be here, I think that was a huge thing."
Since the Seattle match, Casey’s role on the team has changed. After a 2-1 home loss to the Washington Spirit the following weekend, Caroline Stanley began starting in goal for Sky Blue, where she has been ever since. Then at the start of May, Casey was waived to make room for New Zealand-international goalkeeper Erin Nayler, but even so, Casey decided to stay with the team.
"I just viewed it as a unique experience to work with Caroline [Stanley], who is someone who is my age or very close relatively speaking, and then an international keeper," Casey said. "I was happy here and I liked our training environment, so I wasn't going to leave."
One of the things Casey said she likes most about training with Sky Blue is her opportunity to learn from former USWNT and Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Jill Loyden, who now serves as goalkeeping coach for the team.
"She's so knowledgeable about so many different things, and she is a very technical player," Casey said of Loyden. "I think that's what I was lacking a lot in college, so I was really excited to get up here and work with her because I think I just have so much to learn from her on and off the field."
And Casey is not the only one who has enjoyed the experience.
"I love working with Caroline," Loyden said. "She is like a sponge with any information that we give her, and she can quickly apply it to her game. The mark of a great goalkeeper is to have humility to learn and a willingness to change, both of which are characteristics that she has. She possesses all of the tools to be a great goalkeeper, and I am really happy to be a part of her process going forward."
Casey’s dedication and commitment to the team, even after being waived, paid off. It was originally intended for Casey to fill in as backup keeper once Nayler left for the Olympics, but Nayler’s time with the team was briefer than expected, and Casey was re-signed in the wake of her departure.
Regardless of her role on the team, Casey is happy to be with Sky Blue, and Sky Blue Head Coach Christy Holly said he is happy to have her.
"From the start of our research during the draft period, we had our sights set on selecting Caroline. She was fantastic in Seattle in our first match of the regular season, and she has continued to grow and show exactly what she is capable of doing," Holly said.
And while Casey does not see herself staying in the game in the long run—she has another dream of attending medical school once her soccer career is over—she knew that the opportunity to play professionally, to play for Sky Blue FC, was a dream that was too good to pass up.