On July 1, 2016, Catherine Zimmerman’s dreams of playing professional soccer came true when it was announced that she had signed with Sky Blue FC.
As Sky Blue’s attack continued to be hampered by injuries, Head Coach Christy Holly turned to the forward/midfielder a reserve with Sky Blue at the time, to give some life and depth up top for the team.
Zimmerman had already faced one setback in her dreams of being a professional athlete, and little did she know that less than one month later, she would face another.
On July 31, Zimmerman limped off the field at Maryland SoccerPlex. She didn’t know at the time that she had torn her right meniscus or that her season with Sky Blue, which had only just begun, was now over.
From Madison to Providence
Catherine Zimmerman, a Madison, N.J. native, has always been the kind of soccer player that made other people take notice. She started playing soccer at the age of six, when her parents signed her up for town recreation league soccer. That led to travel soccer, which led to a love for the game itself.
“It was something that I enjoyed doing from a young age, so I was always happy to be at practice or games,” Zimmerman said.
Although she also swam and played baseball, softball and basketball growing up, in high school her love of soccer and its time commitments won out. As a teenager, Zimmerman played for her high school, a club team and an Olympic Development Program (ODP) team.
At Madison High School, Zimmerman lettered in varsity soccer all four years, and she worked her way up the ranks to serve as team captain her senior year. That year she also led the team to its first state section championship, the school’s first in 26 years, by scoring five goals in three games during the playoffs.
Her performance senior season earned her First Team All-County, All-Conference and All-State honors, and she was named the Morris County and Star Ledger Player of the Year. Zimmerman finished her high school career with 50 goals and 25 assists.
At the club level, Zimmerman also experienced much success. Her team, the Players Development Academy (PDA) Charge, were Premier League Finalists and Red Bull National League Champions in 2009, State Cup Champions in 2010-2011 and ECNL Finalists and an ECNL San Antonio All-Event Team in 2011-2012.
But the growth as a player that she experienced with the PDA Charge was the most rewarding part of her time with her club, even more so than her training with her ODP team.
“It was more of a constant level of playing good teams and playing with good competition. With high school—high school was fine, I got to play with my hometown friends and that was great—but the level of play wasn't that high. ODP was a little bit more broken up throughout the year, so PDA was probably the most consistent, just like, challenge and constant play I could get growing up,” she said.
After graduation, Zimmerman went on to play Division I soccer at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. Although she only played in 10 games her freshman season, she still led the team in points (15) with seven goals and an assist. She again led the team in points her sophomore season, racking up 16 points off of another seven goals—including four game winners—and two assists.
Junior year was Zimmerman’s most dynamic year, starting all 19 of the Friars’ games and finishing out with 27 points (11 goals, 5 assists). Senior season saw Zimmerman score another seven goals and tally four assists for the Friars, earning her All-BIG EAST First Team honors and being named to the 2015 BIG EAST All-Tournament Most Outstanding Offensive Player.
From Providence to Rochester
Possibly most important for her time at Providence, though, was the realization that her dream of becoming a professional soccer player was no longer an unattainable one.
“I guess I always dreamed about [playing professionally], but the option was not always there,” Zimmerman said. “The different women's leagues have been in and out throughout the years, but with the NWSL being so successful the past few of years, it's really got a good base and it seems like it's going to keep growing and be here for a long time. So, being in college when the league started, I realized that it was going to be more of a platform for playing and it kind of became more realistic and more of an option, more of a definite option that I could potentially accomplish that dream I had when I was younger.”
That realization led Zimmerman to declare for the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) collegiate draft. However, after four rounds and forty overall picks, Zimmerman found herself without a team.
Not to be deterred, Zimmerman went to her college coach for help.
“When it was announced that Paul Riley was the coach [of the Western New York Flash], for one, I knew he was a great coach, and two, my coach at school had a good relationship with him, so he was able to talk to him and get me into camp, which I'm thankful for because that kind of got things rolling,” she said.
With an invitation to the Flash’s preseason camp, Zimmerman traveled to Rochester and began training with the Flash even as she continued her college education. She scored a pair of goals in the Flash’s preseason matches, proving her merit and earning a spot on the team’s official 2016 roster.
However, before logging any time with the Flash in the regular season, Zimmerman made the fateful decision to put her professional soccer career on hold so she could graduate on time.
“I went into it knowing that I wasn't not going to finish school, and Paul was, to his credit, he was supportive of that, and he was willing to work with me and I definitely appreciate that,” Zimmerman said. “But it was definitely difficult trying to travel back and forth. I mean, that was doable, but at the end of the day I wasn't going to not finish school when I only had only a month left to finish my degree. I wanted to get that in and then I wouldn't have to worry about going back to school and my focus could just be on soccer.”
Although her original plan was to return to Western New York after graduation, those plans changed last minute, and Zimmerman found herself back home in New Jersey.
From Rochester to Piscataway
Once back in Jersey, Zimmerman once again used her soccer connections and, this time, her Jersey Girl status to work towards her goal of playing professionally, and she earned a spot on Sky Blue FC’s reserve team.
Despite being a late addition to the team, even as a reserve, Zimmerman said she was immediately welcomed by her teammates, helping to ease her transition from college to the professional world of soccer.
“It was definitely hard coming in late and everyone had already established their friends and the team had already established that bond, so it was a little difficult, but everyone was really welcoming,” she said. “But my first day at Sky Blue, everyone shook my hand and introduced themselves which, again, is something that I think is sometimes rare, especially in women's sports, but that's something I'll never forget.”
Life as a reserve player can be difficult, putting in just as much time and energy into training with the team but receiving little to no compensation for their efforts. Although they don’t wish for anything negative to happen to any of their teammates, they are still hopeful that an opportunity will present itself for them to be called up to the team’s full roster.
“Obviously if I could have been playing in games right away, that would have been a dream come true, but that wasn't the path I was on and that's fine, and it definitely helped me get more accustomed because obviously Sky Blue has a lot of great players and they're fast and strong and that kind of gave me a little bit of a buffer,” Zimmerman said.
From reserve to pro
The opportunity Zimmerman had been hoping for presented itself in the week leading up to the July 2 road match against the Portland Thorns FC when it was announced that Kim DeCesare would be unavailable for Sky Blue against Portland because of injury. DeCesare’s injury meant Sky Blue was severely lacking in their attacking depth. Australian international Samantha Kerr had only seen limited minutes for the team after recovering from an off-season foot surgery, Maya Hayes was still recovering from an MCL sprain and Danielle Schulmann had been placed on the 45-day disabled list with a right hip strain.
In need of more attacking players, Sky Blue officially waived New Zealand-international goalkeeper Erin Nayler, who had departed the team at the end of May, and signed Zimmerman to the team’s full roster on July 1.
“We are delighted to be able to call up Catherine to the pro team,” Coach Holly said at the time of Zimmerman’s signing. “She gives us an offensive threat and adds some variety into our attack. We are excited to see what she brings over the remainder of the season.”
Zimmerman was immediately able to showcase her talent as she was one of two forwards featured in Sky Blue’s starting lineup in Portland the very next night. Zimmerman said that, although she was nervous about making her professional debut on such a big stage as Providence Park, her time training with Sky Blue as a reserve had helped her already acclimate to heightened play of professional soccer.
“It was definitely a little bit nerve wracking, but I kind of didn't want to keep my focus on that. I felt prepared, I knew I prepared. I'd practiced with the team for a while and I felt comfortable with my teammates, Zimmerman said. “I just wanted to perform well for them and the coaches and my team and myself, too, ultimately. But it was definitely a crazy experience to have that be my first game, but I guess I wouldn't really want it any other way. It was just a big game to play in and I was happy I could try to help the team.”
Zimmerman’s debut against Portland was an impressive one. Although the United States and Canadian national team players were already away with those teams, Zimmerman still had to go up against the top-ranking team in the league, an intimidating feat for any rookie. However, Zimmerman looked nearly fearless on the field, and she had good movement and skill on the ball against the Thorns.
Once Zimmerman made her debut in Sky Blue’s lineup, she continued to see the field for the team. She started four out of five games in which she has played, logging 257 minutes for the Sky Blue. Although she has not recorded any goals or assists for the season, she has been a major contributing factor in Sky Blue’s attack, it was only a matter of time before she would.
However, that time will have to wait until next season. In the July 31 match against the Washington Spirit—a match that was postponed from Saturday night because of thunderstorms in the DC area, Zimmerman collided with Spirit defender Estelle Johnson in the 25th minute as Zimmerman tried to get a look on goal.
She came out of the impact noticeably limping but continued playing for another four minutes before taking a knee so she could be attended to by the team trainer. Her right knee was hurting too badly for her to continue playing, and she was subbed out in the 29th minute by Maya Hayes.
It was later revealed that Zimmerman had torn her right meniscus and on Thursday, August 4, underwent surgery to repair the damage, effectively ending her season with Sky Blue.
As a player who got her opportunity to live her dream because of another player’s unfortunate injury, Zimmerman understands her situation.
“You never want to see any of your teammates get hurt or anything. Obviously you never wish anything—serious or not serious—on anyone. No one wants to go through anything that takes them out of the game and stuff, but it's obviously posed some opportunity for me and again, it's not like I was happy to take someone's spot because they're hurt, but it's just sometimes it's the name of the game, and I just wanted to capitalize on the opportunity if I was given it,” she said. “Unfortunately, I’m in that boat now.”
With her dreams of playing professional soccer once again put on hold, this time for three to four months as she recovers from her surgery, Zimmerman said she just plans to take it one day at a time.
“I vaguely have a plan,” she said. “I think I definitely want to start rehab and PT as soon as I can, just try to get better so that once I'm better, I can really focus on what I need to get better on soccer-wise rather than health-wise.”