SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Seton Hall center-back Emily Caza was raised on being more than a tackler, even if that meant being different from many of her counterparts growing up. While most players grew up playing checkers, her father helped her learn the backline equivalent of three-dimensional chess.
“Often times when you’re watching a soccer game, and the center-back saves what everybody perceived was going to be an empty goal, and they look like they just made some amazing, athletic, game-saving sort of play; the crowd cheers, this girl looks like a hero,” her father, Joe, said in a phone interview.
“From when [Emily] was five, I told her, ‘Don’t buy into that, girl should have been in the right position the first time.”
While most central defenders fumble with the ball at their feet, the 5-foot-7 Caza is a quarterback of the defense, graceful and skilled enough to move and find the perfect pass to relieve pressure and jumpstart an attack. It is a dominant trait in the ever-evolving world of soccer and a cornerstone to the possession-based team Seton Hall head coach Rick Stainton aspires to develop.
“I think it’s something I’ve always…like it’s not something I tried to be, it’s just that, that’s what I ended up being,” Caza said of her style of play. “I don’t know, I guess my coaches, like when I was younger, it was very possession-oriented.
“They didn’t think as a center-back I should be – like, yes, I think I’m a good tackler, but I shouldn’t be making amazing recovery runs, because that means you probably screwed up in the first place,” she added.
Caza grew up in Thornhill, Ontario, with a Jamaican mother and her Canadian father, Joe. She did not have to learn how to work hard later in life; the ethic was ingrained in her from a young age, competing with boys and her older sister on the field.
Throughout it all, her father was a presence – a coach even if not always by title – instilling in her how to play the game, pointing to the stately German defender Franz Beckenbauer as a role model. For Mr. Caza, it was never about developing his daughter into a suitable player for college soccer. All he ever preached was playing soccer in the way he believed it was meant to be played.
“If she’s going to do this, I wanted her to enjoy the sport and have longevity in it,” Mr. Caza said. “I saw that she had potential – not just me, other people saw she had potential – and, how can you have fun at the sport just kicking a stupid ball around the field?”
“Any true soccer player wants that ball at their feet, they want to contribute – you just don’t need to be pigeon-holed as a defender, you can transition to attack, you can do a lot of stuff with it, you can be an offensive defender.”
Caza was 14, training with Canada’s regional acceleration (REX) program, when she was presented with the opportunity to play for Jamaica in a continental tournament that featured Canada.
“She was a little bit hesitant to go and play for Jamaica,” Mr. Caza said. “But, I guess at that time, her grandfather was kind of…dying of cancer, and…he had mentioned to her that, ‘It’d be kind of nice to see my granddaughter playing for Jamaica’.”
Three years later, Caza wore the captain’s armband for the Jamaican under-20 team, the exclamation point on a whirlwind year that was dominated by her recruitment to Seton Hall.
Many college coaches were enticed by her international résumé, but none seemed ideal for a defender that thrived with the ball at her feet. Needing to find a coach that saw her for who she was, Stainton delivered the perfect pitch.
“I always remember – I think it was the first time I visited here – I had a meeting with him, we were talking, and he said something about – again, he was building the program at that time – and, he was saying, he wants to play possession-oriented,” Caza said.
“And I think, he called me something like…a purebred racehorse,” Caza said with a laugh. “And he was like, ‘That’s different from like other center-backs’. And I only remember that because my dad is always like, ‘That described you perfectly, and my dad loved that from him. He was like, ‘This is your coach, he knows you’.”
Her first season in South Orange was not without its frustration, though. Only appearing in eight games, with a mere two starts, the Reggae Girlz’s U-20 captain watched as her collegiate team finished winless in the 17-game fall season. After the season, in peak fitness, she returned to Jamaica for a short national team camp. The trip was on-field therapy.
“I went into that environment, I went back into Jamaica, and, I just felt, like, this is my team, I lead this team, I have a role here, and bring that back to Seton Hall,” Caza said. “Get out of this rut, just play how you know you can play, like, be that player that you were recruited for and don’t try to be anything else.”
“And, being captain just kind of reassured me that, like, that’s the player they’re looking for; that’s what Rick [Stainton] recruited me for, so, just own that,” Caza added.
Caza’s prospects began to look up in the spring and continued to point towards improvement in the summer. This season, with a reshuffled midfield and defense, the sophomore has been a standout, starting five of six games for the 2-3-1 Pirates.
The team’s climb from rock bottom only becomes steeper as conference season approaches. There, the Pirates will grapple with tougher competition, and discipline will be required as they continue to reinvent themselves in the vision of Stainton.
“I think, when we panic – and Rick [Stainton] says this too – when we panic, we kind of fall into old habits,” Caza said. “And, on the field, of course, everybody’s going to have a bad pass, a bad decision.”
“But, we work for each other,” she added. “We really help each other get out of those moments, and get back to our style of play, and get back to that possession-oriented thing.”
Meanwhile, while both Caza and her father see professional soccer as achievable, they don’t spend time focusing on future goals. Instead, both stay locked in the present moment. So far, that strategy has played out like a Beckenbauer pass.
“Things might happen, you might be able to get a scholarship along the way, you might be able to play for Jamaica, you might be able to make a professional team along the way, but these are kind of results of the real goal,” Mr. Caza said. “And that’s just simply, let’s just see how good you can actually be.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.