For Viviana Villacorta, turning a dream into a nightmare took one step.
“I think there were 30 seconds left at half-time. I just went wrong and tore my cruciate ligament.”
Villacorta began her senior season at UCLA in February 2021, just a month after being drafted by the Orlando Pride in the first round of the 2021 NWSL Draft. With the football season pushed back into the spring by the COVID-19 pandemic, Villacorta wanted to finish her college career before joining Pride in the summer.
Those hopes were dashed in their very first game of the season on February 7 when Villacorta tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
“I was kind of in denial [on the field]’ Villacorta recalled. “But looking back, I knew I tore it up. They told me out in the field. It was very devastating.”
Rather than make one last shot at a national championship and then turn pro, Villacorta faced a year of grueling rehab.
“It hit me harder than most other injuries because of… the excitement of being back [from the pandemic shutdown] and then what she might do in her senior year,” said Amanda Cromwell, then the head coach of Villacorta at UCLA. “It was devastating… it hurt everyone. Just the emotion of it all, it was hard to rally the troops.
“When I went through that, I never thought it would be this hard, especially mentally.”
With the sudden end of her college career and a lengthy rehab, Villacorta was forced to face the mental side of the recovery process.
“Eventually I had to go to a therapist,” she said. “It was very helpful and reassuring [to know that] What I feel is completely normal.”
To get through the difficult months of rehab, Villacorta relied on a strong support system. Her father, a huge Peruvian soccer fan, and her three siblings (two older sisters and one younger brother) are a tight-knit group who developed their love of soccer together.
“Growing up, all my siblings played. My dad is a personal trainer so we all trained together and were very competitive,” she recalled. “We would help and support each other. It’s hard to be far from them, but they’ve been my biggest supporters.”
Villacorta also had several teammates and coaches, including Cromwell himself, who had gone through ACL tears in the past. Villacorta credits Cromwell with helping her through the difficult periods of recovery.
“She was very supportive,” said Villacorta. “The first time it happened, she would always talk to me about it, like, ‘You got that.’ I’m so glad to have her by my side and to be my coach.”
Cromwell drew on her experience of the injury. “You have some big wins, then you might plateau. Mentally it can confuse you because you feel like you’re going to be on that up curve all the time, you’re not. I was just trying to remind her to…stay the course, knowing it’s a process. I was just trying to just let her know we were thinking of her.”
Unable to play, Villacorta watched the 2021 Pride season from the sidelines. She saw sweeping changes before ever stepping foot on the pitch to coach as the club changed head coaches, executives and even owners between the time she was called up and the start of the 2022 pre-season.
However, one of those changes was the hiring of Cromwell as head coach of the Pride.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” says Villacorta, laughing. “When it was announced, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’ She texted me and I was really excited because we already had this relationship. It’s amazing that she’s here.”
“When she got hurt I thought this can’t be the way things are going with Vivi. I have to coach them again,” Cromwell said. “It was the alignment of the stars. I’m just very glad I could be here when she came back.”
Villacorta began preseason Pride training in early February, just days before a year since her injury. Despite being fit enough to participate in football activities, Villacorta was still behind her teammates as she entered the final stages of her recovery.
“There were a lot of ups and downs [in preseason]’ said Villacorta. “It was hard. In preseason you want to get fit, you want to show yourself and I wasn’t at that point yet. It was a lot of extra fitness, extra weight, coming early, staying late. It was definitely a lot, very mental. “
Still a rookie, Villacorta found support from the Pride’s veterans, including midfielder Gunny Jónsdóttir, the Iceland international who has suffered three astounding cruciate ligament tears in her career.
“Gunny, she went through it,” Villacorta said. “[She] knows exactly what it feels like to be in my position and it really helped that she supported me too.”
“It was a pleasure to see how hard she worked to get back on the field,” said Jónsdóttir. “It is never easy to endure such a serious injury. Coming back from that doesn’t come naturally, so I’m really proud of Viviana and what she’s accomplished. She is always the first here, the first to arrive and the last to leave, because she knows she has to work.”
Villacorta did not compete in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup as she completed her recovery. But eventually she was ready for a short stint leading up to the regular season opener on May 1 at Exploria Stadium against NJ/NY Gotham FC. About 20 minutes before the end of the game, Villacorta received the call to join the game.
“I was definitely a bundle of nerves,” she said. “When they called me to go in, I was probably just looking at the floor trying not to freak out, but it all happened so fast I didn’t really have time to think about it. It was definitely more exciting just thinking back over the last 15 months, how hard it was and how much I went through to finally get to this point. and [to] playing and stepping onto the field at Exploria was just amazing.”
Villacorta replaced Jónsdóttir in the 72nd minute and played the final 18 minutes and injury time without incident. While Pride lost 3-0, that moment meant so much more than just a result for Villacorta.
“By the end of the game I was like, ‘Wow, okay, that happened!'” she recalled. “A debut and first game back from ACL. I was just a mess, I cried so much but it was just happiness.”
After all games, regardless of the result, the Heineken Star of the Match will be awarded to the best Pride player of the evening via fan voting. Jónsdóttir received the award for the game, but something about it was wrong.
“When [Club communications director] jackie [Maynard] came up to me and handed me the trophy, my stomach was just too [Viviana]’ said Jonsdottir. “For me, this evening was about Viviana. I’ve been through it, I know what she’s been through. I wanted her to have something to remember about that game.”
“It meant the world to me,” Villacorta said of Jónsdóttir’s award. “She’s such a mentor to me. She has been helping me with this throughout the journey that I am here. Just seeing her do that shows her character and how selfless she is.”
Villacorta took the trophy back to the dressing room and immediately called her father.
“We just laughed,” Villacorta said with a smile. “My mother was on the phone too. He just asked me, ‘How did it feel?’ and I thought, ‘It felt great!’ When I entered the field, I wasn’t that nervous anymore. I got into the rhythm and he just said, ‘You looked great!’ You know how fathers are. They hadn’t seen me play or train, so they were definitely very happy.”
The following week, Villacorta and The Pride traveled to Villacorta’s hometown of Los Angeles to face off against Angel City FC for the first time. While Villacorta was not in the game, the Pride picked up their first win of Cromwell’s tenure, winning 1-0 at the packed Banc of California Stadium. More importantly, Villacorta was able to see her family again.
“It’s a big deal for all of us,” she said. “At school, they came to every single game, so I always saw them, and now we can go to LA. It’s…really, really special.”
With the rehab process finally behind her and a full season ahead of them, Villacorta has set her goals high for her pro career.
“I want to be Rookie of the Year,” she says. “[I want to] have a positive effect on the team.”
After overcoming a hurdle like a cruciate ligament rupture, it doesn’t seem wise to bet against her.