The cross from Aly Wagner came in and the ball bounced once, twice and, just before it took a third hop, Caroline Putz tucked it into the near post. The goal was her first for the U.S. women’s national team, scored just minutes into her international debut in a 4-1 win over Italy.
After that goal, nothing. No second goal. No additional minutes. Not even another call-up. Her career with the USWNT was over before she knew it.
Of the millions of soccer players around the world, few ever represent their country, and even fewer score. Putz, whose last name is now Leith, did both in the span of four minutes. With her one and only cap, she is also part of an even smaller group of soccer players: the one-cap club.
As of three weeks before the 2023 Women’s World Cup begins, 251 women have suited up for the U.S. women’s national team, and 32 of them did it exactly once. Ahead of the World Cup, ESPN chatted with a few members of the one-cap club — the players whose international careers started and ended on the same day.
Caroline Leith, forward: July 7, 2000, vs. Italy
The Utah native and high school All-American never played for the U.S. again after netting her goal against Italy. She rarely played high-level soccer again.
“At the time, I didn’t realize what an exciting moment it was in my life,” she said. “I had worked so hard to get to that point, so even just the opportunity to get on the field was something I’d worked a long time for and I was just humbled by the experience.”
While there were no more national team appearances after, there had been several before at youth levels. Leith was a standout in high school and went on to play collegiately at Washington.
Players like Wagner, who set up the goal, and Michelle French, who hugged her in celebration after, went on to become familiar faces around the U.S. program. But there was little confusion on Leith’s part about why there weren’t more call-ups.
“Just to say it how it is, I don’t know if I was good enough to compete at that level,” Leith said.
She now works in the aerospace industry.
Merritt Mathias, defender: June 12, 2018, vs. China
Angel City FC defender Merritt Mathias got her USWNT opportunity in 2018, playing 13 minutes of a friendly against China. She was on the bench during 2018’s Tournament of Nations the following month but never got the nod from coach Jill Ellis to go in.
While Mathias is an NWSL veteran and is working to get back on the field this season after suffering an injury, the 32-year-old tells ESPN that she knows the window for a national team return likely is closed.
“I grew up with the national team being the only path to success,” Mathias said. “To have that moment when it all comes together, you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, this is such a special, nerve-racking moment,’ and it’s also so still and calm. For me, it was unbelievably powerful and also one of those things that you want more of them, you want it to go perfectly. It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget, but it left a taste in my mouth that I wanted more.”
Now that Mathias has been a steady regular in a league where she’s able to train daily — and be spotted by managers — she has struggled to shake the feeling that she should’ve earned additional call-ups.
“It took me going to therapy, it took me kind of having to sit with a lot of things in my life to really appreciate the success that I’ve had and the player that I am and redefine what success meant for me,” she said. “Part of that is having a cap for the national team.
“Would I love to have had more and had more experiences with the full team? Absolutely. That is true. But it’s also true I’m a successful player and have had an impactful career in the NWSL. I’m one of the original players to ever play in this league, and my name will have a history tied to it.”
Beth Keller, midfielder: Feb. 24, 1999, vs. Finland
Keller is the only player capped in 1999 who didn’t earn at least one more cap, but she still got to be involved with the run-up to the USWNT’s second World Cup title.
Keller scored in a February 1999 friendly match against Finland in which manager Tony DiCicco used a largely young squad. Three days later, players like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy started against the same opponents, mainstays of the team who would enter the American consciousness during the pivotal 1999 Women’s World Cup and become champions.
Instead of preparing for the World Cup, which was held in the United States, Keller and a U-21 team that included future senior team regulars like Heather Mitts and Danielle Slaton were flown from Iceland after the tournament to Southern California. There, they painted their faces, dressed up and even made an acrostic poster in hopes of getting on ABC. (“I think it was America Beats China,” Keller recalled.)
At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, Keller and her U-21 teammates watched up close as the players they were training with just months before now battled China in the World Cup final. When Brandi Chastain scored the famous game-winning penalty in the shootout to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Keller was watching from the stands.
“Afterwards, they invited us down to the locker room to celebrate,” Keller said. “To be a part of it all was so special, to be that close to it and go, ‘Wow, we can do this!’ It was pretty cool.”
With that much star power at the manager’s disposal during that time, Keller said she understands why she was never asked to put on the Stars and Stripes again.
“I think the reason [there wasn’t a second call-up] is because they were freaking All-Stars! Don’t mess with the best, right?” Keller said, laughing.
She now works at a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Jackie Billet, midfielder: Aug. 16, 1992, vs. Norway
It was in 1992 when she was just beginning her college journey with Wisconsin that Billet came on as a substitute for a 4-2 loss against then-powerhouse Norway.
“The team was amazing at the time. I was kind of starstruck, playing with Mia Hamm. I’d never really been in a training environment like that, to be in that environment, and see Anson [Dorrance] coaching,” she said. “The senior national team was everything. Other than the reason that you just love to play the game, that was the be-all, end-all goal.”
Billet said she would’ve liked more feedback about how she could have improved to earn another call-up. Like the other one-cap players, though, she says it’s a memory she looks back on fondly and she has no regrets about how things turned out.
“I remember having them take an old-school camera picture and hoping they’d process,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so being able to see my dad in the stands while I was representing the United States was amazing.”
Billet is now a sales rep in Missouri.