Yenith Bailey went from a total unknown to a star in women's soccer circles in the span of a week. The Panama goalkeeper, just 17 years old, arrived at the Concacaf Women's Championship with only two recorded starts for the national team. Now, she's on the verge of helping Panama to its first-ever World Cup with a spot in France on the line in Wednesday's third-place game against Jamaica.
Even dedicated WoSo experts have to be given a pass for not having Bailey on the radar before the tournament started. Bailey was playing midfield at this time last year before Panama coach Victor Suarez, himself a former midfielder, converted Bailey from a field player to a goalkeeper.
"Yes, that’s true. I’ve been a goalkeeper for a year," Bailey told Goal. "When you like the sport, you do what you have to."
It was the right call. Bailey made 24 stops in the group stage before Suarez decided to rest her for Sunday's semifinal defeat to Canada, citing a rotator cuff injury. Bailey could've played through it, Suarez said, but he wanted to make sure his young shot-stopper is at full strength for Wednesday's game, which looks more winnable. Not that Bailey can't make saves against a top team. Against the United States, she kept a game against the best team in the world much closer than it probably should've been by making a dozen saves.
"Very, very impressed. I think I went over to her a couple of times to tell her how good she was," said Carli Lloyd, a two-time FIFA player of the year who eventually put a hat trick past Bailey in a 5-0 win. "She played a fantastic match, and hopefully that gives her a lot of confidence in herself."
The confidence started with Suarez, who opted for the 17-year-old despite having the more experienced Farissa Cordoba in the ranks as well. Suarez is leading a youth movement with the Panama women, hoping to build a base for the women's game in a country where men's football also is developing. Bailey is one of seven players on the roster of 20 who were born in or after 2000. Only two, 13-year-old Sheyla Diaz and 17-year-old Anuvis Angulo, are yet to see the field in the Concacaf tournament.
"I think to play in a team, it’s not about your age, but rather the athletic conditions you have. Our national team is known for players who really win their spot day-in, day-out in their training sessions," Suarez said. "[Bailey has] done really well, she’s stood out as you’ve seen."
Now the question is where Bailey goes from here. Though Panama has started a women's league, Bailey's only real chance of making it full-time in soccer is finding a pathway to the U.S. unless there's a serious focus on the women's game from the Panamanian federation. Bailey is realistic about her future, though she hopes a win Wednesday could boost interest and investment.
"In the future I’d like to leave my country. I also have to train more," she said. "While we might not have what we need right now, little by little the things you hope for and the things you want can come. Our country hasn’t supported us, but now they’re supporting us more. It could be that they’re looking at the women more with the league they’re doing and I think they’ll support us more if we get through."
It could still be difficult for Bailey to make a next step. Several of Wednesday's opponents with Jamaica are playing at American colleges, which have allowed them not only to continue to improve as players but also earn college degrees. But for Bailey, speaking only Spanish could be a barrier with universities requiring a certain threshold be reached on standardized tests conducted in English. While its payment structure isn't clear, playing in the Panamanian league could bring up NCAA eligibility questions as well.
There have been young goalkeeping sensations before in Concacaf women's tournaments. Mexico goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago played in World Cup qualification at age 16, helping El Tri to the showpiece in Germany in 2011 where she became the youngest goalkeeper to play in a World Cup. Santiago had spells both in the NWSL and in Europe, and now is playing in Mexico's Liga MX Femenil with Club America. Now 23, she still has time to reach her full potential but is yet to live up to the lofty expectations set by her standout showings seven years ago.
Karina LeBlanc, Concacaf's Head of Women's Football, said the confederation is investigating the role it can play in bringing along young talent in the region like Bailey and Santiago.
"What’s exciting is that we’re actually looking at players and seeing how we can help develop the players who are actually at the national team level but also the youth development. I think what Concacaf can do is exactly what we’re doing," LeBlanc said. "We’re having the conversations, we’re looking at if we can get some of these girls maybe in college. I know for her she doesn’t speak English, so NCAA there are some limitations with the SATs but we’re well aware and we’re talking through different things. Can we do things to put her as a pro? [To play in] NWSL you have to be 18 years old. Her birthday is March 29, I believe, so there’s a lot of different things but we’re having the conversation about how can we make our national teams better."
LeBlanc, herself a former goalkeeper who has been "impressed with how courageous" Bailey has been this tournament, said discussions continue as Concacaf looks to find a resolution to teams like Panama and Jamaica going years between playing games.
That could mean an expanded qualifying format or separating the regional championship from World Cup qualification. There are obstacles, but young Bailey is a fitting example not only of a player who more games certainly would help, but also someone who hasn't let the odds being stacked against her slow her down.
"It took a big effort to get here. With effort you can do everything," Bailey said. "We’ve trained, and we’ve gotten to this point for some reason. We can only thank God for what he's given us."