Just over 200 women have earned a cap with the full U.S. Women’s National Team, but it’s safe to say none of them had a career quite like Caroline Putz, a skillful and graceful forward who hails from a town that sounds like the setting for a fairytale…Bountiful. It’s in Utah.
Although Putz’s Women’s National Team career may be a short story, it delivered a fairytale ending.
In the summer of 2000, the U.S. Women’s National Team was in the middle of the busiest year in its history. The team played 41 matches from January through December and won an Olympic silver medal in Australia.
In July, the squad had a match scheduled against Italy on Long Island, N.Y., and as the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup champions were coming off a championship run at the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup, then-head coach April Heinrichs decided to give most of her veterans the match off to rest.
The squad that took on Italy at a minor league baseball stadium in Central Islip, N.Y., included two 1999 World Cup champions in Christie Pearce (Rampone), who is from New Jersey, and Long Island native Sara Whalen, but the rest of the players were youngsters who previously had seen most of their international experience while playing with the U.S. Under-21s.
The starting lineup in front of a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd of 6,022 fans at newly built EAB Park (now Bethpage Park, home of the Long Island Ducks) did feature current U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team head coach Michelle French, who would be a member of the USA’s Olympic Team that year, as well as future national team stand-outs Aly Wagner and Cat Reddick.
On the bench that balmy night was a 19-year-old Putz, who would turn 20 in just a few days. She was enjoying the summer before her junior season at the University of Washington, and although she had played for the USA at the Youth National Team levels, this was her first call-up to the senior side.
The USA went ahead in the 24th minute on a goal from Wagner, but Italy tied the game through striker Rita Guarino just minutes into the second half. The young Americans put the match away with scores from Whalen in the 54th and Susan Bush in the 76th minute.
The USA had already made four substitutes when Putz was sent on for Bush with just four minutes remaining.
“Caroline was a good player,” said U.S. Soccer Women’s Development Director Jill Ellis, who as head coach of the U.S. U-21s that year was on the bench for the match with Heinrichs. “She was smooth on the ball, had great vision and was an excellent U-21 player. As far as her goal, we were just trying to get as many players on the field as we could that day and fortunately we were able to give a few minutes to Caroline. She certainly made the most of them.”
Putz says those four minutes went by in a blur because she was so focused. Then one minute of stoppage time was added, which would turn out to be the minute in which Putz would seal her legend as the most efficient goal scorer in U.S. history.
As the match moved into stoppage time, Wagner burst free down the right flank and played a perfect bending ball behind the defense to the crashing Putz. With a first-time touch she blasted the ball into the roof of the net to make it 4-1. Seconds later, the match was over.
One cap, one touch, one goal.
As for that efficiency stat, well, her career projection based on that one appearance would give her an average of 22.5 goals for every 90 minutes.
“They could have put me in during the 90th minute and I wouldn’t have cared,” said Putz. “I just wanted to play. I went into the game filled with adrenaline and excitement. It felt like seconds later when Aly played me a hard bending ball from the right end line. The ball seemed to land directly on my left foot and find the back of the net.”
Those would be the first and last minutes Putz would spend in a U.S. jersey for the senior side. She would go on to finish a stellar career at Washington, where she was a three-time All-Pac 10 selection and four-year starter for the Huskies. She scored 22 career goals with 27 assists (playing two seasons with U.S. WNT goalkeeper Hope Solo) and finished fifth all-time in goals and second all-time in assists in Washington history.
She had aspirations of playing in the WUSA, the USA’s first pro league, but a severe ankle injury a week before the combine contributed to a poor performance in front of the pro scouts and coaches, and she was not drafted.
At that point, the pivotal moment every elite athlete experiences was upon her. Was this the end? Putz was at a crossroads.
“Soccer was all I knew, and all I had been known for,” said Putz. “I had been playing competitively since I was eight years old. Growing up playing on Youth National Teams there is little time to work or do internships. So, the decision to leave the game was extremely difficult. I had to choose a whole new direction for my life.”
She went back home and earned her MBA at Utah State, where she was also an assistant women’s soccer coach, and then joined the work force, returning to Seattle, where she worked four years for Pacific Coast Feather Co.
After that, she again headed back to her home state and worked five years for an architectural materials and hardware company, 3form, Inc. That’s where she met her husband Galen. The family now resides in Sandy, Utah, and they have two daughters – Sawyer, who is two and a half, and one-year-old Dylan – with one on the way.
Soccer has not played a big part in her life since she left Utah State, and although she does do some private coaching, she has turned her athletic passion to distance running. Now Caroline Leith, despite limited time to train (see: three kids in four years), has completed 10 marathons as of 2013 with a personal best time of three hours and 23 minutes.
If you saw her at the gym or running on the street, one would certainly identify her as one of those super-fit moms, but hardly anyone who knows her nowadays would know that she holds a highly unusual and obscure U.S. WNT record.
“When I stopped playing in 2002, I retreated a little from the game,” she admitted. “I was always known around (Utah) as the girl who played soccer. I wanted to have a professional career [outside of soccer] and have a happy family life. I never stopped loving the game; I just kept my accomplishments within my close circle of family and friends.”
That is, of course, until U.S. Soccer’s Centennial Celebration unearthed this classic Hidden Cap.
July 7, 2000, will always be with her, in her memory. A special memento, a ball from that game sits on her desk at home, inscribed with her name, the score, date and “first cap, first goal.”
“When the ball went into the back of the net that day, it encapsulated my entire career,” said Putz, who was the second – and most recent -- player from Utah to earn a cap with the full WNT. “At that moment, all the hard work I had put into soccer over the years came together. All the hours I worked, all the time I put in, everyone I played with and all the teams I played on contributed to my being on the field on that day. Even though I only played a few minutes, I was proud to earn a cap at the highest level. I never thought that game would be my last time with the National Team, but it actually was. The ball is not only a reminder of the game itself, it’s a reminder of years of dedication.”
So to all the future National Team players out there, when you make your debut, hopefully it will be the first of many games. If it turns out to be your only cap and you want to make a Putz-like impact, you’re on the clock.
You’ve got four minutes.