When Emily Fox hit the turf on a chilly October night against Boston College in the fall of 2017, her knee hurt, but she couldn’t gauge the injury’s severity. She hoped it was only a sprain of some sort.
It wasn’t. An MRI confirmed the worst - a torn ACL.
As soon as she found out, Fox didn’t waste any time with “why me” diatribes, she started to make a plan.
After undergoing surgery in early November, she set off on a meticulous recovery process with her focus set on a singular goal: the 2018 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup.
Fox already knew how special the World Cup experience can be for a player. She wanted more. The defender played a key role for the USA at the 2016 U-20 WWC, seeing time in all six games while starting five as the USA finished fourth. While she was the second-youngest player on the roster, she finished the 2015-16 U-20 cycle with the second-most caps on the team. With that taste of the global stage in 2016, it made the 2018 tournament an even more alluring goal.
“I really wanted to be a part of this World Cup team. I really just wanted to prove I deserve to be on it,” Fox said. “Doing something every day, always in the back of my mind was the World Cup. I believe that if you have a plan and you do it to the best of your ability, it’s either going to happen or you know that you did everything you could to make it work. Either way I could be satisfied with the outcome.”
In 2016, Fox took in all that she could from her older teammates. She learned more than she could have imagined and valued every ounce of soccer knowledge they dropped. When the new cycle kicked off in the spring of 2017, Fox got off to a flying start. The FC Virginia product provided a leadership presence as she played in every game for the USA before the start of the college season, logging the most minutes of anyone in the pool.
“For me, it was really exciting to start being a leader,” Fox said. “I think that helped me grow as a person. Throughout my entire time on the U-20 cycle, I’ve probably played every single role you can. I think that’s helped me a lot, just being versatile and just accepting everything for the good of the team.”
She enjoyed an equally impressive opening to her college career in Chapel Hill. The speed and competitiveness of the Youth National Team program set her up for success in the collegiate game. She started every game on the right side for the Tar Heels as they put together an 11-2 record to begin the season.
That injury in Chestnut Hill, Mass., derailed Fox’s forward momentum. It put her far from the fast track she had run through the first 10 months of 2017 and struck a devastating blow to her future plans. She couldn’t help the Tar Heels in the rest of their NCAA campaign and she’d definitely miss the Concacaf World Cup qualifying tournament in January.
Fox forged the bleak short-term outlook into resolve. She committed wholeheartedly to her holistic road to recovery and she sought out the help of everyone she could.
“I started making a plan, with my college team, with private practices, with people at home, with the U-20 coaches, with our sport scientist,” Fox said. “It was a long plan. I had a lot of people involved in my recovery and I think that really helped.”
First and foremost, the painstaking process required patience. Recovery from ACL surgery, for any athlete is a marathon, not sprint. She had to take a series of steps and clearances in her comeback plan: to run, to cut, to dribble with the ball, to kick and shoot and finally, to play in full-contact in drills. Fox found ways to deal with frustration as she took it one day at a time.
“For me, it was kind of a shock, because I thought as soon as I’m cleared I can just be free and do everything,” Fox said. “It was kind of a learning process because everything takes steps. A lot of it for me was that every single day I did something, even in the early stages when you can’t run or be with the ball. I learned a lot about patience for sure.”
While she waited to return to the field, Fox found ways to improve herself off-the-field. All of the little things became more important as she worked her way back. The care with which she looked after each wrinkle of her plan ensured her the speediest recovery possible.
In January, as the U-20s prepared for Concacaf World Cup qualifying in Trinidad and Tobago, head coach Jitka Klimkova and her staff rang up Fox. She had far exceeded expectations thus far in her carefully-curated comeback effort. While the World Cup once seemed like a far-distant finish line, the U-20 coaches let Fox know that if they took care of business in qualifying, her progress meant she could very well figure in their plans for France the coming summer.
“I wasn’t sure that she’d be able to be with us. It’s her unbelievable work ethic that put her in that position,” Klimkova said. “She really followed her program, she did everything that the experts told her. Her recovery included her nutrition, her sleeping, everything. She’s very close to being professional in this aspect. That’s what helped her with her recovery.”
Her coaches’ encouragement, together with continued support from her U-20 teammates, provided further motivation for Fox. In March, she started to run again. In April, she got back on the ball. In May, she returned to the U-20 WNT for a domestic training camp at U.S. Soccer’s National Training Center in Carson, Calif. While she couldn’t participate in contact drills or the team’s scrimmages against the U.S. U-23 WNT, the event served as a significant checkpoint in her comeback and continued to boost her confidence.
“It kind of felt like I never left, which I think is the way you’d want it,” Fox said. “It was a smooth transition back, but it was also just so exciting for me. I was able to get some insight on what I needed to work on. During the games, watching our team and the U-23 team play, I wanted to be in there with them. It definitely made me want to get back to playing in real games as soon as I could.”
From there came the crucial home stretch of World Cup preparation. While the U-20s travelled to France for the Tournoi Maurice Revello Sud Ladies Cup, Fox stayed stateside to get fully up to speed. She’d spent time training with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, college teammates as well as her youth club. Now she’d need to make a final push of fitness, proving to the coaches and medical staff that she was good to go as the tournament drew closer and closer.
The U-20s returned with the Ladies Sud Cup title and Fox earned a call-up to the team’s final pre-World Cup training camp in July. Twenty-four players gathered in Portland, Oregon and 21 would make the final tournament roster after a pair of friendly tune-up matches against Brazil.
On July 3, almost a full year from her last U-20 WNT appearance, Fox entered the USA’s second game against Brazil as a 74th-minute substitute.
“I was just so happy to be back with the team,” Fox said. “The excitement and that knowledge that I had done all this work to get here kind of overpowered the nerves and the worries.”
“If I hadn’t known that she was injured, I wouldn’t recognize it,” Klimkova said. “With her style, she’s back and it’s great to see she plays with a high quality after her injury. I was celebrating the same way the team was celebrating. We knew she was back after many, many months.”
Her performance in Portland proved to Klimkova that Fox stood ready to contribute in France. She made the roster as one of three returnees from the 2016 U-20 WWC team, alongside Savannah DeMelo and Ashley Sanchez. Finally back with the U-20s, the attention to detail that propelled Fox to an optimal recovery should provide an example for her teammates in France.
“She’s the quiet role model,” Klimkova said. “She’s great with recovery, she’s great with nutrition. She prioritizes what’s important to her. She goes to the training, she always puts in 100 percent. She’s not so loud, she’s not so one who would talk the whole time, she’s the quiet leader.”
Even with a year-long absence, Fox’s 33 caps make her the third-most-experienced player on the World Cup roster. The coaches will still need to handle her minutes with care, but after a long road to recovery, Fox is ready to contribute however she can in France.
“I’m very excited and thankful to be here,” Fox said. “Whether I’m going to be a supporter, whether I’m going to be a starter, whether I’m going to be a sub, I’m just always going to be rooting for our team and doing the best I can.”
“I knew that this World Cup would be just as exciting and as awesome as the last one,” Fox said. “Having the picture in my mind: that’s the feeling, that’s what it’s like when you win a game or when you advance to the quarterfinals, that really did help me and painted a picture. The crowds, playing against the best players in the world, just everything involved in it. I wanted to be there.”
And now, she will be.