Canada’s Matheson insists she’ll play at World Cup

Diana Matheson, right, in action for Canada. (John Woods/CP)

If there’s a single image burned into your memory from Canada’s bronze-medal victory at the 2012 Olympics, it’s probably Diana Matheson’s goal celebration—arms outstretched, mouth agape in an almost incredulous smile at her injury-time winner over France, looking like a gymnast who can hardly believe she just stuck the perfect landing.

So it’s no surprise that when Matheson, Canada’s star midfielder, tore her ACL in an October friendly versus Japan, there was a collective shudder among soccer fans across the country. The 31-year-old, a veteran with 166 caps, is a difference-maker for the team. Canada plays host to the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, and they’re facing big expectations thanks in large part to that Olympic triumph. The squad needs Matheson’s talents—what coach John Herdman calls “an X factor that can push us onto the podium.”

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The five-foot Princeton alumna—known for the dynamic skill and speed contained in her compact frame—was always on a tight timeline to return for the World Cup, but was initially on track.

“The knee had gone so smoothly,” she says. “I was back on the field, feeling like a soccer player again.”

But when Matheson was named to Canada’s final roster on April 27, her delight and relief were tempered by news of a setback: a stress fracture in her right foot. The risk to her World Cup was made worse by the feeling of wasted progress.

“Going back to just the boring rehab exercises was tough,” says Matheson. The close-knit nature of Canada’s squad makes solitary rehab work doubly difficult. “We’re totally codependent,” she says of the bond the team shares. “We’re not really used to being on our own.”

Matheson, who plays with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, overcame a similar situation before the Olympics, dealing with a knee injury that jeopardized her spot on the roster. We know how that worked out. In picking his World Cup team, Herdman says Matheson’s age and experience were vital to his decision, injuries aside. “Healthy or not,” he says, “she’ll play a wonderful role.”

Whether Matheson will play an active role is up in the air. The team will have until 24 hours before the first match to substitute a new player if Matheson isn’t healthy. If you ask her, that won’t be necessary.

“It means everything,” she says of the chance to play in the World Cup on home turf, her wide smile not quite celebratory, but hopeful. “I plan on being back.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.