BEAVERTON, Ore. – It was one month into Portland Thorns FC's 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season that the true reason for Katherine Reynolds’ return came out.
A defender with the team since 2016, the 31-year-old saw her previous season ended abruptly by a knee injury, one that required major surgery on her right medial collateral ligament before the Thorns’ campaign was over. She watched from the sidelines as her team made a second-consecutive NWSL Championship game and went into the offseason with questions about whether she wanted to continue. After nearly a decade in professional soccer, the thought of a long rehabilitation process created a difficult decision.
Eight months later, Reynolds was at the Timbers Training Facility, with the team as they prepared for another practice. She’d not only returned but started each of Portland’s first three games of the season. An incision on the lower inside of her right knee commemorated the first major comeback for her career, but the motivation she shared with teammate Christine Sinclair and the rest of her teammates was a surprising one.
“The only reason I came back is Sinc gave me three pair of nice new cleats,” Reynolds joked, referring to the end of the previous season. The players had been cleaning out their lockers at Providence Park, then, with the team’s captain looking for homes for her arsenal of collected product. “I had to use them,” Reynolds says in a deadpanned shrug, the beneficiary of a shoe size identical to a legend’s.
This is the type of relationship Reynolds has built with Sinclair since her Rose City arrival, but it’s also shared with Emily Menges, who has been with Portland since 2014. If you were to put the three on, say, an organizational chart, it would be difficult to show where the trio’s relationship lies within Thorns structure. But in terms of the team’s integrity, the three sit at the team’s core. Every sports team has its own heart, soul, nervous system. Sinclair, Menges and Reynolds form the team’s conscience.
That added another layer to Reynolds’ decision. Had her injury happened in other contexts – in places where she wasn’t playing with close friends, or in an organization with less benefits than Portland’s – the challenge would have been greater. Having played for seven other teams on three continents across her career, Reynolds’ WoSo passport has been stamped through. She not only knows the virtues of life in Portland. She knows who’s sharing in those experiences.
“They make it so much fun …,” she said of not only Sinclair and Menges but also Angela Salem, a person that has become a close friend after the two met early in their soccer voyages. Salem recently rejoined the team, starting her second Portland season. “They take soccer and this team and this league super seriously, but they also can find the joy and the fun …”
“Without them,” she said, “I don’t know if I would still be playing.”
Like most comebacks, Reynolds’ path back to the field hasn’t been a linear one. There have been setbacks and slowdowns, and even now, she doesn’t consider herself 100 percent.
“I still feel like I’m still coming back, honestly,” she says, explaining, “I still notice my knee. I don’t know. Maybe that’s just how I’ll be, from now on.” She’s still getting used to how it feels to hit a long ball, whether certain pains will eventually go away. “I think it’s just accepting the new normal.”
This was part of the future Reynolds had to consider last summer, when she was still deciding whether to return to the field. “I always say I take it one year at a time, one season at a time, one day at a time,” but in those moments when the reality of her recovery became real – when the work that was required to get athlete ready, not just real-life ready, came into focus – her then-fiance (now husband) reminded her of what, unsaid, she already knew.
“When I was talking about whether I was going to play again, he was like, ‘Well, you’re going to work harder than you’ve ever had to work if you want to play this season,’” she remembers. “’Do you want that?’”
The hard work wasn’t it. You don’t have a career sharing minutes with the likes of Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Sinclair without working to get near their level. “For me, hard work has never scared me,” she says. “It was more putting in the hard work and maybe not getting the outcome that I wanted as the scary part. But once I committed, I was 100 percent in and determined to come back.”
Even in the middle the process, there were doubts. The first recoveries from major surgeries are always filled with mental obstacles, not knowing if certain struggles are normal, or if your experience is becoming an exception to a rule. Reynolds was not only going through that but also holding herself to a heightened standard. She wanted to get back on the field.
“At first, I was like, I don’t know if I want to play if I’m not feeling 100 percent at the start of the season,” she remembers. “Then, I was like, ‘No, I felt good enough.’ I was going to be ready.
“(Head coach) Mark (Parsons ) also gave me that confidence. I was like, ‘I haven’t touched a soccer ball, yet. I don’t know if I can even still play soccer.’ He was like, ‘That’s going to come back.’”
In the month before March’s preseason began, Reynolds began ramping up her physical activity. By the time her teammates arrived in Portland, the intensity of her workouts had drastically increased, but it would still be weeks before she could return to full training. When the Thorns’ Preseason Tournament gave the team three friendlies over mid-to-late March, she made three appearances, but never saw over 45 minutes’ time.
That’s why the decision to start her two weeks later, in the team’s Orlando season opener, caught her off guard.
“When [Parsons] said he was planning on starting me,” she remembers, “I was honestly shocked, because I had only played a few minutes in preseason.”
“Mark said he wasn’t expecting me to be in the place that I was at at the start of the season, and frankly, I wasn’t either.”
“But I felt ready. I felt confident. I was really excited. Definitely nervous before the game because I felt like I hadn’t really played that much, yet. But once you’re out there, it all comes back.”
It came back in a way that made her offseason, from a distance, feel less significant than it was. To date, Reynolds has played every minute of the season, occupying left-central defense as her team’s navigated three road games undefeated. With one defender gone for World Cup duty (Emily Sonnett) and another (Ellie Carpenter) to join her soon, Reynolds should continue seeing minutes, be it in central defense or her more natural fullback spot.
When you pick up where you left off, people don’t get to see the struggle. But for Reynolds, what happened away from public eyes was the hardest part.
“I think it was just taking each day as it came, because I didn’t really know how I was going to be feeling, each day,” she says, “If I was too focused on the future, then it would stress me out … Once I got here, back on the field, and to have such great support with (Thorns’ head athletic trainer) Pierre (Soubrier) and (fitness coach) Garga (Caserta), I feel like things kind of sped up.”
Sped up so much that, by the time Sinclair was giving out boots in May, Reynolds’ life was back to normal. At the heart of the defense, in the conscience of the team, her return’s complete. Newly healthy, the only question is how long she’ll play for – and how long she’ll be on the receiving end of her captain’s boots.
“You keep giving me cleats,” she told Sinclair, another pair thrown her way, “and I’ll keep playing.” As long as she does, Reynolds will be part of Portland’s core.