What does it feel like to tear your ACL? Some people say that it’s like a pop going off in your knee. Some people can even still limp around on a torn ACL, although that is definitely not recommended. But what seems to be most common is the speed with which it happens. One moment you’re planting or turning or just minding your business, and the next you’re on the ground. It’s a scenario plenty of soccer players are, unfortunately, familiar with.
What might be more difficult than the physical rehab is the mental journey. Just as physical recovery isn’t always a straight line, managing your emotional load during rehab is an up and down process. Some days you might feel like you can take on everything rehab has to throw at you. Some days you might feel like your career is over. ACL recovery is, by now, a well-documented process, but knowing that other people have been where you are can only help you cope so much. So it’s a volatile time for any player. With that in mind, after tearing her ACL in a September 17 game against the Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage defender Merritt Mathias tweeted the following:
It’s one thing to get mad at someone for being involved in a foul that caused your injury, and another to say directly that it was a malicious attempt at injury. But it’s also twitter, where two tweets can’t possibly sum up the totality of your feelings on something this rough. At media day to preview the 2019 NWSL championship, Mathias was asked if, having had time to think and begin rehab, she wanted to expand on anything she had tweeted about her injury.
“I think when I posted the tweet I now probably could have articulated it a little bit better, but I think I still stand by what I say,” she said. “Yes, this game can be brutal and it can be harsh and there are going to be bad tackles and there are going to be these things. But there’s a difference between that and being a little bit different from that in it being a little bit dirtier than that. I just think at the end of the day that people should be held accountable...that you need to be better than that.”
She continued, “I don’t think I particularly said it in the way that probably everybody could get behind, and that’s okay. I’m not here to please everyone. But it is what it is.”
Mathias included the referee of that game in her accountability, as well as the NWSL disciplinary committee. “Particularly in that game, the reffing was an issue,” she said. “And it’s been an issue in the past. It’s something in the eighth year that the NWSL probably needs to be looked at.”
As someone who has committed her fair share of flagrant fouls, Mathias admitted, “In the past yes, I have guess a reputation of doing certain things.” Among those things, hair pulling that resulted in a three-day suspension and pushing a player’s face into the turf for a one-game suspension. But she feels that she’s grown from that, adding, “I’ve also never in the things that I have been suspended for, I don’t believe I ever put anyone’s like, career in danger.” And she wants consistency in punishments from the league when reviewing fouls that warrant suspensions - a fair point, just from looking at the suspensions she’s personally gotten.
“No matter who you are, no matter who you play for, when you’re in the NWSL you play for the NWSL,” she said, “And you should get the same repercussions across the board. If one player did one thing and a year later the same player does the same thing and that player doesn’t get the same repercussions, then you can’t really stand behind anything.”
Mathias said she was feeling good, though, at that point in her ACL recovery. She was happy to be with the team, and said that after her injury, fellow defender Abby Erceg texted her at home and asked her to give a speech to the team before semifinals. Mathias teared up recounting how much Erceg’s request meant to her. Erceg, who was at the same table, ducked her head, giving Mathias space, or perhaps some semblance of privacy.
It must have been a good speech - or at least not a bad one - since the Courage went on to take the Reign apart 4-1. “I basically just said that I think this season has looked different for us,” Mathias recounted. “There’s been some challenges and it’s been frustrating and we’ve had a little bit of doubt as some times, and I think within that there’s always been this underlying sense that we still believe in one another.”
Mathias will probably be ready for some light workouts by the time the 2020 season starts, based on a general timeline of ACL recovery. It’s different for everyone. “In the beginning I was like I can’t believe this happened to me, you know?” she said. “And so I think in that way it’s like, holy crap, how is this going to look and what’s this going to mean for me and all those things. And then you kind of get out of it and you’re like listen, if I can see Amy Rodriguez and Megan Rapinoe and all these phenomenal players that have come back from multiple ACLs and come back stronger and better than ever, it just gives you so much strength and hope that you’re going to be okay.”