Return of Mallory Swanson, Catarina Macario a big boost for USWNT, Emma Hayes

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Catarina Macario felt like crying.

Except, she hates crying in public, so she kept it together.

This was last month when the 24-year-old forward made her long-awaited debut for Chelsea after a lengthy recovery from ACL injuries that prevented her from playing for the United States women’s national team in last summer’s World Cup. The star forward came off the bench in the 72nd minute of a Women’s Super League match against Leicester City and scored a goal six minutes later. 

She was back like she never left.

“It just really felt like a dream,” Macario told reporters via Zoom on Wednesday ahead of the SheBelieves Cup, which begins on Saturday. “Just felt surreal.”

Last week, Macario was called into her first USWNT training camp in nearly two years, as it’s taken that long for her to get healthy and fit. Fellow elite forward Mallory Swanson was also called up. Swanson, 25, participated as a training player with the squad ahead of the Concacaf W Gold Cup in February, but now she could see her first national team minutes since rupturing her left patella tendon a year ago.

Having both Macario and Swanson back in the fold is a huge coup for new head coach Emma Hayes — who currently coaches Macario at Chelsea and will take over the national team after the WSL season is over in late May. As the USWNT prepares for this summer’s Paris Olympics, one of the more intriguing storylines will be who makes a smaller 18-player roster (23 players are on a World Cup roster).

And the forward line — which in this current camp also includes Alex Morgan, Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Jaedyn Shaw — just got even more competitive.

***

Simply put, the U.S. struggled to score goals at the World Cup. The squad netted just four in four matches in the run of play, three of which came in the opening match against Vietnam, and two of those were from Smith. The Americans were ousted in the Round of 16 after a dramatic penalty shootout against Sweden, marking the earliest exit from a major tournament in program history.

Before her shocking injury during a friendly against the Republic of Ireland last April, Swanson was in the form of her life. She had scored seven goals in the USWNT’s first five games of 2023 and was poised to have a breakout World Cup. After not being selected for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, she was motivated and ready for a comeback on the sport’s grandest stage.

Even after her first surgery, Swanson convinced herself she could still make it to the World Cup. 

“I remember texting my surgeon and being like, ‘How long is this recovery?” And he was like, ‘Six months,'” Swanson said. “And I was like, I can make it in four. Like, I’m gonna do it.”

Then things got tricky. A week and a half later, Swanson got an infection in her knee and experienced symptoms of a septic joint. After emergency surgery, she was placed on IV antibiotics for six weeks and had a PICC line.

“That was the point that really slowed me down,” Swanson said. “Looking back at it, I’m very thankful for how everything worked out because, ultimately, I learned a lot about life. I’ve never gone through something like that. I think it gave me some time to kind of just evaluate myself, evaluate my life, and also just take a step back and enjoy being with my husband [Cubs starting shortstop Dansby Swanson] in Chicago.

“Ultimately, it worked out how it was supposed to.”

Swanson has played three matches for the Red Stars so far this season, and last week scored her first goal since the injury. She used the NWSL preseason to build minutes and recently played 90 in a 1-1 draw against the Orlando Pride.

“That was like, welcome back!” Swanson said with a chuckle. “Forgot how hard that is [to play 90 minutes]. I’m very thankful that I never felt rushed by [U.S. Soccer or the Red Stars]. I felt supported throughout the whole time and I think ultimately the timing worked out pretty well.”

***

The timing worked out well for Macario, too. Not only did she score in her first match back for Chelsea in early March, but she scored goals in her first two club games off the bench and added an assist in a recent Champions League win over Ajax

“Looking back at the 641 days that it took [after injury] it just kind of all happened in the blink of an eye if that makes sense. I was like, ‘Oh, okay, so we’re playing now,” Macario said, describing how she felt returning to the pitch.

“I felt like crying, but at the same time like, not, because first of all I’m in public, and I hate crying in public. But there were so many emotions there. I obviously knew that I had been working towards that for a while, but I think probably the biggest thing was getting over that mental hurdle that was like, ‘OK, I’m safe. I’m good to play again. I got this.'”

Not just any player can come back from what Macario calls the “hardest period of my life” and contribute right away. Similar to Swanson, she credits club and country for not rushing her back, especially since a full recovery took much longer than anyone could have anticipated.

Macario tore the ACL in her left knee in June 2022 while playing for French club Lyon. Just a few weeks before that, she became the first American — male or female — to score in a Champions League Final when she helped Lyon defeat defending champion Barcelona, 3-1.

It can take months to fully recover from an ACL injury, but Macario wasn’t expecting to be out for 20 of them. 

“I could have had two children by now,” Macario joked before adding, “that is not the reason why [I was out for so long].”  

She didn’t have a specific return date in mind, she just hoped it would be well before the 2023 World Cup. That didn’t pan out, which was mentally draining, Macario said. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” Macario said. “I’ve definitely grown more as a player and a person because of it. You can’t ever take anything for granted and I’m just happy to be back playing again.” 

***

The Olympics begin in July, which means Macario and Swanson have less than four months to prove why they should be selected for the U.S. roster. Their respective returns make the forward line competition extra juicy.

Before Swanson’s gruesome injury, former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonvoski made her the centerpiece of his attack. Perhaps there would have been more goals and more wins at the World Cup if she had been there, as she’s the type of player who can change a game.

Now as she reintegrates into this roster, one that is newer and younger than how she left it, Swanson said she has had to adjust tactically and technically to get caught up to speed.

But don’t be surprised if she regains her starting spot quickly. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore said that when she trained with the team in February after not playing a competitive match in so long, Swanson “looked very comfortable dealing with double- or triple-teams that a player of that caliber can expect at times.” And now that she’s played NWSL matches, it’s time for international minutes.

“Mal is a really special kind of player,” Kilgore said after calling her up for this camp. “She can play wide and she can look to get in behind. She can play between the lines and drop low and play almost like a midfielder. She can invert and play a little bit more like a second nine, which gives us a lot of options.”

Part of what Kilgore and Hayes are layering in is “the ability to go to different systems and to create different structures — or the same structure with different players from different positions,” Kilgore said. “All of which lend to Mal’s strengths.”

As for Macario, Hayes recruited her to play for Chelsea while she was still injured — she left Lyon last July and joined the Blues. While she credits a strong support system of friends and family helping her through this difficult time, she’s also grateful for Hayes nudging her along.

“Emma has been very supportive during this whole time,” Macario said. “I think even the fact that she chose to recruit me while I was still rehabbing and making a comeback speaks a lot as to how much she values me, which is nice.

“We’ve had a few hard conversations, sometimes when perhaps I was not making the best decisions. But she definitely has given me a lot of tough love, which I really appreciate. And I just am very, very thankful for her from the very beginning. I just hope to repay her in that way both for Chelsea and in the future, with the national team.”

The USWNT is eager to make a statement at the Olympics after last summer’s disappointment. Whether a first major tournament under Hayes results in a gold medal or not, the squad still needs to show it has made significant improvements. 

And as Macario and Swanson return to pre-injury form, the U.S. is going to need them.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her at @LakenLitman.


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