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The long comeback of Chicago's Casey Short

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

Four years, three torn ACLs. Casey Short faced the end of her career, but now as Richard Farley notes, the Red Stars fullback is among the best in the NWSL.

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“It was very bizarre,” she says, laughing. A lot of 26-year-olds wouldn’t. Three years out of college, and after spending a year in Europe, Casey Short is back living in her father’s Naperville, Illinois, house. Nearly a decade since she had truly called Chicago’s suburbs home, Short had quickly come full circle.

“I really hadn’t been home much for eight years,” Short told FourFourTwo, trying to capture her return’s slightly surreal feel. “It was definitely weird coming back (home).”

Devoid of context, Short’s situation sounds like a modern day parable - the misguided attempt to describe a millennial's search for calling. Short, however, has never lacked a calling. Unlike many people her age, Short’s path had never been in doubt. A standout on U.S. Soccer’s Under-16, Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 national teams, the Naperville native was always destined to be a professional soccer player. Now in her mid-20s, she wasn’t supposed to be starting over.

Short’s true restart, though, was forced on her two years ago. That’s when, shortly after being acquired by her hometown club, the Chicago Red Stars fullback suffered another torn ACL. For the third time in four years, and for three different teams, a knee injury had handed Short a year without soccer. It’s only now, four years after leaving Florida State, that Short has finally completed her first National Women’s Soccer League season.

A standout debut

To imply Short merely completed her first season is euphemistic. Entrenched in Rory Dames’ starting XI from the season’s first minute, Short immediately became one of the best fullbacks in the NWSL, scoring in her second Red Stars game and adding a second later in the season. Fast and skilled, the converted attacker is one of the league’s premier threats going forward from her position, while her speed and athleticism make her one of the league’s best one-on-one defenders.

“She has all the attributes that I look for in outside backs,” Chicago head coach Rory Dames, who briefly coached a teenage Short, explains. Even before initially acquiring her in 2014, one year after Short was drafted fifth overall by the Boston Breakers, Dames said his former youth club player “would be somebody we would want.”

“We made that trade, we were excited to get her in, and then she got hurt again.”

That 2014 injury, a second ACL tear in two years, meant Short’s professional debut would be put off. Again. She had failed to play a minute the previous season, having torn her ACL while playing for the U.S. U-23s prior to her Breakers debut. Two years before that, an initial ACL tear forced her to redshirt as a senior in Tallahassee. The extra time was put toward a master’s degree in Sports Management, but even before Short underwent surgery in Boston, her professional career was behind schedule.

“My world kind of turned upside down,” Short explains, calling her third surgery “probably when I hit rock bottom.”

“Not trying to sound dramatic, but the game I love was taken away from me for a few years, and I lost all of my confidence. I felt that everybody else had lost confidence in [me]. I had thoughts of ‘can I come back from this?’ And not only can I come back from this, but can I come back even better, and still accomplish these goals that I have? Just a lot of questions going through my head at that moment.”

Risk before reward

Few jobs are so precarious that a chance moment can take away your livelihood. Most of us have the luxury of not putting our bodies on the line every time we go to work. Athletes, though, are different, and while many earn enough money to compensate for the risk, Short’s first injury came while she was in college, before she was given a chance to consider that trade-off. Her next two ACL tears came while preparing for the low-paying NWSL. Short wasn’t being afforded a choice between risk and health; she was still fighting for the privilege to make those decisions.

“I initially tore my ACL my senior year of college, but that was probably the easiest of the three surgeries I went through,” Short remembers. “I fought back and changed positions at Florida State, worked my way back into the U-23 national team. I got drafted and I was kind of on top of the world. At that point, there was a collision again, (and) everything was taken away from me. I literally hit rock bottom.”

For an athlete, there’s a question at that bottom: Is it worth going on? After three procedures in such a short period of time, there was no guarantee that the speed and athleticism that set Short apart would return. Dames concedes, “There was a time when she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to play anymore,” and even if Short elected to continue, there was no telling where her game would be after two years away from the field.

In the preseason of 2013, during her first days with Boston, Short looked like a potential steal. Just over one year later, her career was almost over.

“`13 and `14 were definitely some rough years for me …,” Short says. “But, I told myself I could either feel sorry for myself or fight for my dreams, fight for everything that I’ve worked hard for. I chose to do that.”

Rebirth in Avaldsnes

Short is nothing but positivity. Perhaps that’s just her professional demeanor – part of the job – but even when talking about her injuries, there’s no hint of bitterness. There are no sighs of regret, even as she tries to describe the emotional toll of the last six years. Listening to Short, you hear a woman that’s long ago accepted what happened. You hear an athlete that’s moved on, one who scarcely entertained a doubt.

“[Retiring] maybe crossed my mind for a second,” she says, laughing at the thought, “but then I was like ‘No, this is not who I am. This is not what I want.’ I want to a professional soccer player … I’ve got rid of that negative thinking and turned it around.”

NEXT: Ending the absence ... in Europe