PORTLAND, Ore. - Moments before the Australian Women's National Team walked out onto the pitch at Winnipeg Stadium for their first match in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, legendary Matildas forward Sarah Walsh pulled aside a visibly nervous Steph Catley.
Catley, who was playing in her first World Cup game ever, was about to line up in defense against the eventual champion U.S. Women’s National Team.
"Take a moment for yourself," Walsh told the 21 year-old defender. "Take two deep breaths, let the nerves out and go play."
When Catley stepped out of the players' tunnel, she found herself in front of over 50,000 screaming fans—many loudly supporting the American team—with television cameras surrounding her on every side. It wasn't until both teams had lined up for their national anthems that Catley could finally focus.
"It was incredible," Catley recalled. "The U.S. fans are really loud and supportive towards their team, but we had a moment when we were singing our anthem and you could just hear our voices and we were belting it out and screaming it.
“In the end, the U.S. fans started clapping because we were screaming so loud."
But after the referee had blown her whistle and the cheers of the crowd had faded into the background, Catley's nerves completely faded away.
"Once I was out there, it was just football again," she said.
While Australia failed to get a result from that first World Cup match, Catley and her teammates had put a scare into a powerful American team, something that gave them an added boost of confidence ahead of their next two matches against Nigeria and Sweden.
"We learned a lot from the first U.S. game because we showed how good we could be in the first half and took our foot off the pedal in the second," Catley said. "We were really disappointed with our second-half performance and did everything to make sure that didn't happen again."
Australia followed up that match with an impressive win against Nigeria and a hard-earned draw against Sweden, results good enough to earn Catley and her teammates a knockout round game against former World Player of the Year Marta and Brazil.
After an impressive team defensive effort, Catley and the Matildas defeated Brazil 1-0 and powered their nation to its first-ever World Cup quarterfinal appearance.
"I felt like our back line held up really strong and every time they came at us we were able to counter them and hold strong in our back," Catley recalled. "That's going to be one of my best memories in football, because we worked so hard. I remember just being exhausted towards the end but knowing that there was something still left in everyone and that we were pushing and getting closer to get the breakthrough and the goal."
Back home in Australia, the media coverage and public reaction to Australia's run to the quarterfinals dwarfed anything that Catley and her teammates could have imagined before the tournament.
"It was was massive, especially after the Brazil game," Catley said. "I think people took notice when we got out of the Group of Death, but probably didn't think we were going to get any further. But I think everyone at home just threw all their support behind us. You could really feel it and we felt like our country was behind us, which always helps going into the game."
Catley believes that the Australians' historic run will raise awareness about the women's game in her native country.
"We do struggle a little bit for attention back home so we knew how important it was to do well for the future of the national team and the future of women's football in Australia. I think it's going to do wonders for the game and you get messages from little girls saying that they watch the games, that they were inspired. Hopefully, that can continue to grow and people can continue to support women's football."
They also received a surprising show of support from their Canadian hosts.
"The fans and the people in the street were just so warm and so welcoming," said Catley. "We felt like there was this bond between Canada and Australia. They really threw their support behind us when we were playing."
But as much as Catley enjoyed Canada, she said that she's happy to be back in Portland with the Thorns.
"I love football so much. It's essentially a home away from home. When I got here, I just went back into the swing of things. It's lovely. I love the people. I love this team and this club."