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Run of Play: The injury mill

Every soccer player faces injury at some point in their career – just ask the 2017 Washington Spirit. Injuries can be brutal losses that can derail a season (Kealia Ohai), a career (Jordan Angeli), or a team (Rose Lavelle and the Boston Breakers). With Lavelle back on the bench for Boston and Tobin Heath on the cusp of appearing for the Thorns for the first time this season, let’s take a look at players whose return from injury has made an impact for their team.

Alex Morgan has become the focal point of the Pride’s offense.
(photo by Mark Thor, courtesy of Orlando Pride)

It was bad enough the Orlando Pride had to go without Alex Morgan for the first part of the season due to her short-term loan with Olympique Lyon. Then she got injured in the Champions League final, and her return was delayed even more. When she finally made her 2017 debut on July 1, the Pride were in 7th place with a -1 goal differential. Marta had made an immediate impact, but she needed someone on the end of her efforts.

That someone was Morgan. The Pride lost her first game back 0-1 to Chicago but have gone on to win five and draw two in eight matches since. Morgan has eight goals and two assists in nine games, putting the Pride firmly in fourth place and leading them to form the league’s second best offense and a +10 goal differential. More importantly, the amazing partnership between her and Marta has elevated the play of the rest of the team. The defense has (mostly) stopped making silly errors late in games, Alanna Kennedy has become a midfield force, and Jasmyne Spencer and Chioma Ubogagu are playing better than they ever have before. What separates great players from good is the ability to lift a team, and Morgan’s return from injury has done just that.

Megan Rapinoe led the Reign into playoff position before getting injured.

It’s not a stretch to say that 2016 was not the best year of soccer for Megan Rapinoe. She returned from an ACL tear (probably too quickly) to join the USWNT Olympic squad under heavy criticism, only to play poorly and exit in the quarterfinals. In five appearances with the Reign she only made two starts, notching one goal and one assist, as Seattle failed to make the playoffs.

2017 is a different story. In 15 appearances with the Reign, she has 12 goals and one assist, and at one point carried the Reign to a playoff spot. She has more than double the shots, both total and on target, of any other Reign player. Rapinoe was firmly in the mix of the MVP discussion and her stellar club play led her back to the NT, which as recently as March had appeared to be a tenuous spot. She went on to be far and away the best American player at the Tournament of Nations.

Unfortunately for Rapinoe, she recently tore her meniscus. She may return for the Reign again this season, but they’ve slid to 6th place and are five points out. However, the fact that both their rise and fall can be at least partially attributed to the winger highlights her importance.

Arielle Ship will miss the rest of her rookie season after tearing her ACL. (photo courtesy Washington Spirit)

As alluded to previously, no discussion of injuries in the 2017 NWSL season can happen without mentioning the Washington Spirit. They’ve suffered an astonishing six ACL tears in the last year, dating back to Cali Farquharson on September 7, 2016. Since then, Caprice Dydasco, Joanna Lohman, and Arielle Ship (as of last Saturday) all tore theirs in NWSL games. Kelsey Wys tore hers in the offseason while playing with the W-League, while Line Sigvardsen Jensen tore hers during the recent EUROs. This is not to mention the more short-term injuries that have kept Francisca Ordega, Mallory Pugh, Estefania Banini, Shelina Zadorsky, Tori Huster, Katie Stengel, Kristie Mewis, Cheyna Williams, Kassey Kallman, and Yanara Aedo out. I’m not kidding – every single player listed has been marked as “out” on the NWSL injury report this season, and that’s not counting those out for an illness or excused absence. That’s 16 out of the 26 players who have suited up for the Spirit this year.

Would Washington have been a playoff contender this year without this slew of injuries? Not likely. They’re a young team in the early stages of a rebuild that needs to grow consistency. But many of us, myself included, think they aren’t as poor as their standings would have you believe. However, if you’re looking for the silver lining, look at the players who have gotten more minutes because of these injuries, and made the most of it. Rookie Meggie Dougherty-Howard is becoming one of the more solid center midfielders in the league, and although she has little in the way of boxscore stats to show for it (one goal in 17 appearances), she has an eye for perfectly weighted through passes that create chances for others. Havana Solaun is another who has stepped up. After wasting away on the Reign’s bench for two seasons (one due to injury), she’s now the Spirit’s leading scorer. They may not have been able to save the Spirit’s season, but they show promise for the future.

Every team has to deal with injuries. They force a team to demonstrate their depth and resolve, and a coach his or her adaptability. A team cannot depend on one or two players alone, but those same one or two players can make a world of a difference.

{Read More: The Kronick Report: Sam Kerr is at it again}

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