Linda Caicedo Is The Future
11:00 AM EDT on July 25, 2023
Colombia entered the World Cup in an enviable position. Las Cafeteras had been drawn into a tough Group H alongside Germany, South Korea, and Morocco, but they had shown at last year’s Copa América Femenina that they could survive in a pressure-cooker tournament scenario. Colombia also came into this tournament with a handful of players not just playing but thriving in Europe. Perhaps most excitingly, Colombia had 18-year-old Linda Caicedo, and would feature her in its campaign to reach the round of 16 and, possibly, beyond.
Caicedo needed exactly one match, her World Cup debut against South Korea, to more than validate that choice—and to put the rest of the tournament on alert for her preternatural technical skill. Facing a South Korean team set up as Colombia’s biggest rival for Group H’s second knockout-round ticket (behind Germany), Caicedo was often her side’s most dangerous attacking player playing down the left wing, creating two key chances and attempting dribble after dribble against Korean right back Choo Hyo-joo. Though only two of her 10 take-ons succeeded, her constant pressure kept driving South Korea’s backline toward its own goal, opening up space elsewhere. For a winger to orchestrate an offense, they must be both incisive with their dribbles and able to pick out the key pass from the outside in, and Caicedo mostly did that in Sydney.
If it were not enough to be the most dangerous player on a side comfortably winning a World Cup match, Caicedo also served up the exclamation point on a near-perfect first half for Colombia. Just nine minutes after Catalina Usme scored from the penalty spot (given due to an unfortunate but relatively clear handball against South Korea's Seo-Yeon Shim) to open the South American's tally at this tournament, Caicedo got to work.
Having picked up the ball and dragged it to the far left wing, she first out-muscled Kim Hye-ri to get a vital bit of space to turn on the jets, before dribbling straight at Lim Seon-joo, who wisely started an early backpedal. Unfortunately for her, that allowed Caicedo to set up a perfect cutback to her right foot—crucially forcing Lim to spin completely around, sapping her momentum—before uncorking a gorgeous curler with enough pace on it to trouble goalkeeper Yoon Young-geul, who could only slow it down on its way into the goal:
One could argue that the goalie could have, and should have, done better on the shot, but the pace at which Caicedo fired it off, somehow also with a powerful bend, made it a trickier shot than it looked at first glance. Moreover, it was cool. Let's not highlight-truther a cool run and goal, the first from outside the box in this World Cup. Caicedo is 18! These are things 18-year-olds in their first World Cup match—in this case a must-win match for Colombia's long-term hopes in this tournament—just do not do. So far, though, the teenagers have been shining down under, with Caicedo and Haiti's Melchie Dumornay both seizing spotlight moments in the first round of matches.
For Caicedo, this isn't particularly new territory. As was oft repeated in the post-game, her goal against South Korea made her the first player to score in three World Cups in one year, having done so in both the Under-17 and Under-20 tournaments earlier in 2023. That's a bit silly—there is only one World Cup that people take into account when talking about "the World Cup"—but it does point to how she's shone in these pressurized moments. There's a reason, after all, that she's been playing professionally since she was 14, and there's a reason Real Madrid was so keen to bring her over after she turned 18 earlier this year. She starred in half a season in Spain, and now she has an iconic World Cup moment to call her own.
For Colombia to remain on the ascent, Caicedo will likely have to repeat this grade of performance at least a couple more times. The toughest challenge is next up: Colombia takes on Germany on Sunday. It's a match Las Cafeteras can afford to lose, but one they'd love to get something out of. A point against Germany would allow Colombia a much better scenario for qualification on the final matchday, and of course a win would be huge. Even a loss, though, won't mask what Colombia has done already by beating South Korea, and Caicedo is as big a part of that triumph as anyone. The path to the knockout round got much smoother and straighter the second she ripped that 39th-minute shot; if she keeps doing everything else she showed against Korea, Colombia will traverse it. And if she grows into the tournament even further, as young players tend to do in their breakouts? Well, then the entire field better get ready to backpedal in the face of her furious dribbles.