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Multiple players returning from ACL injuries get first minutes in Challenge Cup

If there’s a bright side to this tournament, it’s seeing players healthy again.

OL Reign v Utah Royals FC

In the 75th minute of OL Reign’s match against Sky Blue FC, Jasmyne Spencer returned to the pitch for the first time in more than a year.

She was injured in the Reign’s 2019 season opener in just the first 20 minutes, but made an impact for the Reign soon after her 2020 return, with a shot on goal that forced the “Save of the Match” out of goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

“I can’t even begin to explain how amazing tonight felt,” Spencer wrote on Twitter. “Thank you every single person who reached out to me to celebrate this moment. To my family friends && teammates thank you for being with me every step of the way. I had sooo much fun and don’t worry the goals are coming.”

Like Spencer, multiple NWSL players have recovered from ACL injuries and made their comebacks during the Challenge Cup.

“The injury itself is devastating,” said Dr. Angel Brutus, Director of Counseling and Sport Psychology at Mississippi State. “And there are different phases that individuals kinda go through. And so you kinda have to come to grips with where you are in that process. And also having, unfortunately, unrealistic expectations about the timeline for return. Not to mention the pressure for return, and then at the pro level when you also have to have consideration for your contracts, where you are in that stage and what that has in terms of implications for your livelihood. Those are some unspoken kind of pressures that no one really talks about when it comes to the desire to return in a quick timeline.”

In the 57th minute of that Reign-Sky Blue match, Taylor Smith entered an NWSL match for the first time since 2018. In early 2019, Reign FC signed Smith after the Washington Spirit decided not to retain her rights following her injury. She was not expected to play at all in 2019, but there were times where she would go back and forth with the Reign – she felt like she was ready, the team didn’t.

While training in Montana, Smith said she was grateful for the feeling of competing 11v11 in open space and the soreness of two-a-days. After months of waiting and weeks in Montana completing intense team training, Smith played 33 minutes against Sky Blue before getting the start vs. Houston.

In the nearly two years without her sport, she watched her friends and former teammates win league titles, play in and win World Cups, all while she was still recovering. She said she felt like her body was on hold, and ended up avoiding social media. She also didn’t record a lot of her recovery process due to the frustrating nature of feeling ready to return when the team said she wasn’t.

“With an extended injury, that’s always a difficult space to kinda navigate and be in because it’s hard to kinda be where your feet are, as we say, because you’re also watching the world around you continue to progress,” Brutus said. “And you feel like you’re left behind. Especially for that level of competition. You’re competing against the greatest of the great and you can’t take that lightly. Any downtime that is forced downtime like an injury has significant implications for the way that the athlete adopts a perspective of the rehab process and recovery.”

Smith recently returned to social media to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and share her thoughts on growing up Black in America. She’s been active on Instagram and TikTok sharing content from her time in Montana, including dances with Reign teammate Sofia Huerta, and educational information about race.

The Reign dealt with a ton of injuries last year. Allie Long estimated that the team went through more than 30 players and said last season was her toughest professional season because of it. Jess Fishlock, who also tore her ACL last year, echoed that sentiment.

The team still qualified for the NWSL semifinals, with a lot of credit given to the coaching of now USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski. Behind the scenes, according to Fishlock, the players also found ways to support each other.

“We just made sure that we were there emotionally and kinda mentally for the girls who couldn’t play but also for the girls who were playing who needed a little bit of help,” she said. “As much as I would say we didn’t really do anything, I think the most important thing, the things (were) what we did very well, which was, just be there emotionally and mentally for everybody who needed something. And I think that ultimately kinda got us through arguably, probably one of the worst times of our organization, kind of career I would say.”

Gabby Seiler, a multi-sport athlete at Florida, tore her LCL during her senior season. The Thorns drafted her with the intention of completing her recovery in 2018. In 2019, she played well for six games. Then, in mid-August during the first five minutes of training, she took a bad step and felt her bones hit each other. She screamed.

“I was so defeated, I’ll never forget it. I mean, some of my teammates were in tears because they knew what I had went through before, and they all knew too,” she said in a Thorns video. “I think everyone on the field just knew (it was an ACL). It was horrible. It was like my worst nightmare.”

Like with the Reign, a community of love and support, from Thorns fans – they chanted her name to honor her during a match – the coaching staff, teammates and family and friends, and her physical therapists, kept her afloat during her initial shock as she began to recover from her second major injury. She was listed as a sub on the Thorns bench in their first two matches of the Cup.

“She’s doing well,” Parsons said last week. “Her injury happened about a month after [Angela Salem]’s and she’s built up to do about a good 45. Gabby’s getting close. She’s ready to play. She’s ready to go. And I hope that we get to see her in the near future. Mentally, physically, technically, tactically, she’s ready to go, we just need to keep building minutes. Obviously getting her on the pitch to start off with is the first step.”

Seiler replaced Salem during the 70’ of Portland’s draw with Washington.

Fishlock is expected to return during the Challenge Cup. She hasn’t played yet, but is “raring to go,” and has been working on her patience, given all the setbacks and delays with recovery and then the pandemic. Fishlock also doesn’t want to rush into her return.

“Look, I’m feeling good actually,” she said. “I have a little bit of tightness in my body that I just wanna make sure is completely clear before I try and go out there giving everything. With the altitude and training on grass and playing on turf, I don’t wanna go into the tournament with any kind of little tightness anywhere.”

She’s participated in group training in Montana, and can tell she’s physically ready. But given the nature of the tournament and a lack of a traditional preseason, she isn’t jumping into play quite yet.

“But despite how I feel, I have to appreciate what the comeback looks like, what the injury, what the situation is that we’re in right now, and be smart, which is new for me actually when it comes to playing football but I want to play football for the next 2-3 years, so I can be a little more patient with that,” she said. “But with regards to the tournament, I feel great and I’m just making sure I pick my right moments to come back and come back better than before.”

The recovery approach and eventual return of Fishlock can serve as inspiration for those recently injured, before or during the Cup.

When rookie forward Ally Watt stopped mid-play in the 71st minute of the Challenge Cup opener, she reached toward the goal post without putting weight on her right leg. Everyone feared the worst. Two days later, Watt confirmed what spectators dreaded: an impactful player with a bright future had torn her ACL during her NWSL debut.

Watt’s injury came after we learned of Alyssa Mautz’s second ACL tear and Caprice Dydasco’s third. OL Reign rookie Kelcie Hedge tore her ACL July 1 and Sky Blue midfielder Kenie Wright on July 7.

“She’s disappointed,” said Paul Riley, Watt’s coach with the Courage. “But the great thing about Ally, the first thing she says to me: ‘But I’ll be back for next season. It’s the best season I could have gotten an ACL [injury].’ So I guess that’s the only way to look at it. It’s a short season, she gets time to recover and get herself back. So I’m excited to see what she can do down the road.”

Watt is still in Utah, along with Salem, Spencer, Seiler, Fishlock, and Smith, who are up-close, physical examples of proof that she can make a successful comeback too.