Women’s soccer took off across the country in the 1990s. Kate Markgraf (then Sobrero), general manager of the U.S. National Women’s National Team (USWNT), ensured she was a part of that game-changing decade as a player on the collegiate, professional and international levels.
Throughout her career at Notre Dame, the Irish took home every conference title — ultimately winning nine straight —, made it to every College Cup, became runners-up twice and won the title in 1995, defeating Portland 1-0 in triple overtime.
“I think the 1995 team was a great example of a team that came together, but it wasn’t an easy road, which is probably the reason why we won,” Markgraf said.
Markgraf went on to play for four professional women’s soccer teams, played with the U.S. Women’s National team through the 1999 and 2003 World Cups and is now the general manager with the USWNT. She is also currently the president of the Monogram club, a community comprised of former Notre Dame student-athletes and student support staff members, as well as an on-campus staff and a board of directors.
‘Self-Selecting’ into South Bend
Markgraf grew up in Bloomfield, Michigan where she attended Detroit Country Day School. While there, she helped the Yellowjackets to the 1991 state title, scoring 16 goals and assisting 26 through her tenure. She was named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA, now referred to as the United Soccer Coaches) All-American team one year in high school and was named to the All-State team in three different years.
While she was recruited for Division III volleyball as well, Markgraf wanted to play soccer and selected Notre Dame for her collegiate career.
“The athletes that chose to go [to Notre Dame], are the ones that are trying to build something,” Markgraf said. “And they self select themselves into a really challenging environment. [Notre Dame] teaches you how to want more and it teaches you how to do it. It teaches you how to face challenges both on and off the field because you’re around peers and faculty that want the same and show you how to do it.”
Markgraf described what a Notre Dame women’s soccer team looked like, in any given year out of her four, why they chose to play for the Irish and who she knew they were playing for when she stepped onto the pitch.
“We were a composite of players that were deemed not good enough to go to North Carolina or players that wanted to build something besides North Carolina and were willing to go into the cold weather. That’s a big culture shock for [the California kids], to go to South Bend,” Markgraf said. “So you had players that wanted to build something, and that’s pretty cool.
Markgraf discussed the culture on campus as well: “[Notre Dame] surrounded them with a campus of really hard-working people. I would say the normal student population goes to Notre Dame because of faith, history, the campus, what it stands for. And when you’re around people that’ve self-selected themselves into this University that wanted that, you’re around people that I still say are the best humans I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never been in a room with so many amazing people that align with my values that were non-athletes in the same spot.”
Playing for the Irish
Markgraf started all 96 games of her career in South Bend. She was a three-time All-American and earned first-team honors twice. She was also a three-time All-Big East selection and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. And, in her sophomore year, Markgraf was named defensive MVP of the final four.
In 1994, Markgraf’s freshman year, the Irish fell, 5-0 in the NCAA Finals to the North Carolina Tar Heels. This loss came after a successful season for the Irish that included a conference championship, an undefeated conference season and a 23-1-1 season record. The year before, the Irish had only made the first round of the tournament so they were on the up and came up just a hair short of the title.
“We’d already been seasoned by that disappointment,” Markgraf said. “You had me as a freshman, a couple other freshmen, and really talented sophomores and juniors at the time experience what it’s like and what is needed at that level. So you already had that greenness rub off.”
In 1995, the Irish took the next logical step, but Markgraf said it was no easy feat. After playing a strong early schedule, the Irish made it back to the NCAA tournament but the path wasn’t without hiccups even though they were no longer green.
“We struggled in some games,” Markgraf said. “We actually played some good opponents early on, so we got to test ourselves individually and collectively, and there were significant ups and downs as a team. But I would say that the core leadership and different, influential players, were able to support everyone when someone else needed a bit more support. And collectively, we got through it.”
By the time the 1995 tournament came around, Markgraf said they felt they had been through the worst of it. Suffering 1994 as a team, coming out the other side and most of the top players making it through personal struggles, Markgraf felt they were ready.
“It all came together and we were firing on all cylinders before the tournament started. We hit the NCAA tournament finally with a little bit of momentum.”
The ‘95 NCAA tournament.
The 1995 Women’s College Cup consisted of 24 teams, rounding out to a set of semifinals between SMU and Portland and Notre Dame and North Carolina. The Irish defeated two familiar foes in their first two rounds. Wisconsin stepped to the No. 4 seed Irish first. In the regular season, the Irish had already defeated them 1-0 but this time, the offense exploded behind four first-half goals and a Shannon Boxx hat trick. The Irish won 5-0.
Then came the Huskies. Notre Dame took on UConn in the regular season and fell 5-4 at Alumni stadium. But, a rejuvenated Markgraf and the Irish defense saw the Huskies in the Big East final and the third round of the College Cup and won both 2-0. Notre Dame was 21-2-2 on the season with a conference title in hand. Now, they were in the final four of the Women’s College Cup, taking on North Carolina.
“We faced Carolina after we’d gotten blown out by them in ’94, we had played them earlier in the [‘95] season and tied,” Markgraf recalled. “Everything just kind of came together … we had excellent individual performances and team performance.”
Instead of the 5-0 loss, they were handed almost exactly the year before, the Irish took down the Tar Heels, winning 1-0 in the semifinals. This meant 1995 would be the first championship since 1985 not won by North Carolina, whose record streak of nine consecutive national titles (1986–1994) was broken by the Irish. This was also the first final match to not feature the Tar Heels.
“We won that game and that was actually the biggest hurdle. We just needed to be ready for the finals…We weren’t supposed to be in the finals, Carolina was. So it was just fascinating to watch all that happen.”
“It was so great to hear quiet Carolina fans,” Markgraf said. “At the same time I had friends on the Carolina team and I saw them lose in front of their fans. And it was awesome. Anytime I hear boos it actually is easier to play in front of a hostile crowd than a supportive crowd sometimes. Depending on the challenges if you’re the underdog or if you’re supposed to win, it matters during certain moments of the games and it was awesome. It tested our resilience.”
However, the Irish still had more than 90 minutes of play to go before they could claim the crown.
The Irish were about to take on Portland in the final. The Pilots went 17-0-2 on the season and won 1-0 in their first two rounds before defeating SMU 4-2. The final remained scoreless.
“It was a hot day and it was going into overtime, we realized, we can do this because we just did what we did on Friday,” Markgraf said. “There’s a confidence that happens, that becomes institutionalized when you’ve had success. You know, it may not be going well but you know you’re going to come out and win and I think that’s what ’95 taught us individually and collectively at the right moments that prepared us in that moment of doubt that you have in a game. Collectively we knew ‘We’re gonna win this. It may not look pretty, but we’re gonna win it.’”
It wasn’t until the third overtime that the Irish were able to break through. Michelle McCarthy was fouled outside of the box, Daws quick-kicked the direct kick past the Portland goalkeeper to end the game. The season would later be described by two-time national coach of the year Chris Petrucelli as a season that “ended the way we all had dreamed about” and Markgraf attributed that to their clarity in the tournament.
In addition to her defensive MVP title, Markgraf would be named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team but the headspace she was in at that point in her career had forgotten accolades, she said. Instead, she was playing just to play.
“[Winning defensive MVP] didn’t shape anything, to be honest,” Markgraf said. “There were times that yeah, it used to matter to me, probably the year before. But I had learned because I’d been disappointed the year before. I was really good my freshman year but I didn’t get any of the accolades. So ego-wise, I was crushed by that. That’s what actually led me to do a lot of self-reflection. I didn’t make the national team that I got to try out for in December of ‘94, after a strong season. I had a horrible tryout. So that’s what had me spinning a little bit. And then through the fall of ‘95, I just kind of had to deal with it and started to get my priorities on the right track where it was like, I need to play because I love this not because I’m good at it. And that’s what it was [in ‘95]. So yes, it was awesome.”
Where Markgraf said the awards made some impact was in the recognition she received from others. She was offered to return to tryouts for the national team but twice declined due to how she felt her first performance with the national team went.
“I just had failed,” Markgraf said. “I didn’t want to face that again. I was just kind of like, ‘No I’m just playing for me.’ I’m not doing this anymore for any of the accolades. “I did it for my team. My senior year, I was asked to switch sides and play [left back]. And I spent all year training for it. Had I been caught up in all the awards, I would have fought my coach and said ‘No, I’m staying on this side because it’s where I’m known to be good.’ Instead, I’m like, ‘Okay, I want to win, all right, I’ll go do that.’”
Markgraf also noted that the position change helped vault her onto the national team’s roster. “I could play on the right and left side when that versatility wasn’t [previously] needed to make the national team. But that’s a reason why I did make it because I could play on the left side when very few players had a left foot.”
Learning through leadership
Throughout the rest of her collegiate career, Markgraf continued to start. She helped lead Notre Dame back to the final in ‘96, but the Irish fell to North Carolina in a double-overtime heartbreaker. In her senior year, Markgraf was named captain. She led the Irish to a fourth conference championship in her four years and to the NCAA Semifinals again after hosting a regional. Ultimately though, Notre Dame fell in the semifinals 2-1 to Connecticut. Markgraf learned more about herself off the field than on in those last two years.
“I think being given a position of leadership as a female, over a female team and with co-leadership — I might wear the armband but there’s all of us — I would say it just taught me those leadership skills, and it gave me the opportunity to see things from a different perspective,” Markgraf said. “I always am a very collaborative leader … to actually be given the title leader, that’s very scary for me, and always was and I always say no. I’ve always been asked to be captains or lead things, and I don’t actually like that title. I usually have to be convinced to do something and that’s what Notre Dame taught me: Embrace it and you’re going to have support.”
After Notre Dame
Markgraf went on to play both international and club soccer. She eventually said yes to the USWNT in 1998. Her versatility and her skill set made her an instrumental part of the 1999 squad despite being the least internationally experienced player to start in the team’s World Cup play that year. The USWNT would go on to win the Cup in ‘99 with Markgraf on the roster. She started on three Olympic rosters, winning silver in 2000 and gold in both 2004 and 2008. In July 2010, Markgraf made her 200th international cap, making her the 10th woman in FIFA history to mark 200 caps. She finished her international career with 201 which currently ranks her at the 25th most international caps between both men and women as no men have more than 200 international FIFA caps.
In her club career, Markgraf joined the Boston Breakers from 2001-2003, making 51 appearances. She then moved to KIF Örebro DFF, a Swedish club where she made eight appearances and scored a goal. Markgraf scored another goal at the Michigan Hawks where she made 27 appearances from 2006-2009 before spending her last season with the Chicago Red Stars in 2010. That year, she was captain of the Red Stars and named to the All-Star team.
Since 2009, Markgraf has been a member of the Monogram Club Board of Trustees. She joined the Monogram Club’s presidential rotation as vice president in October 2017 and began a two-year term as Monogram Club President in April 2022. Markgraf said she loves being a part of the club’s leadership and shaping how it grows and changes.
“The monogram club is an opportunity to figure out how to support the athletic department’s initiatives that are constantly evolving,” Markgraf said. “Because the board is comprised of athletes and represents 9,000 people in our membership, it’s constantly a wonderful challenge in a good way to look at how can we provide connection … to the alumni as well as anything the athletic department needs and wants to support our student-athletes, to let them know they’re not alone. If they ever need help or support, we’re there. But more importantly, when they graduate, we can provide a sense of community, a sense of fellowship, as well as ways to give back to the University as well as to the program that they played in, or just to be part of the committed fabric that even though you’re no longer at Notre Dame, it is for forever. You’re not just there for four years.”
In all of these roles, Markgraf took on larger leadership roles than she may have thought she would originally. That continued into her most recent endeavor as the USWNT’s first General Manager. Her advice? If something scares you, go after it.
“If anything interests you, do it. Go,” Markgraf said. “Go regardless if you’re going to be good at it. I think when you’re at Notre Dame, you’re used to succeeding right? And so trust that you’ll have the skills to figure stuff out. So if you don’t have them currently, know that you can learn them because you obviously showed that you have a reservoir of talent to get into Notre Dame and thrive at Notre Dame.”