SANFORD, Fla. -- Viviana Villacorta's professional soccer career is only two years old, but it has already been full of setbacks.
After being drafted in 2021 by the Orlando Pride, the midfielder tore her ACL just one month later while still at UCLA. After surgery and rehab, she joined the Pride for the 2022 season and played 15 games before injuring ligaments in her left ankle, forcing her to go under the knife once again.
"Tearing my ACL was the worst thing ever," Villacorta said Monday at Orlando Health Training Ground at Sylvan Park. "Knowing my ankle was only a couple of months, that was easier, easing the pain. Obviously giving myself grace and time to come back properly and really using the time to reflect on how it can get better."
Eight months later, Villacorta stepped back onto the pitch in last weekend's loss to Gotham FC, a massive step in getting back into the lineup in full.
"I was definitely nervous," she said. "First game back is always just a bundle of nerves. But I was very confident in my ability and I just wanted to be able to play the best version of myself. Obviously, like coming back from like a couple of months out. I wasn't going to be 100%, but just getting that exposure and just getting that first game down just tick the box. So yeah, I'm excited for the next games."
Going through the rehab process this time around gave Villacorta a different perspective on her recovery, being able to take a step back and understand the full process. The rest of her Pride teammates also helped on the mental side, constantly being her cheerleaders during training.
"Just being able to support my teammates and having them support me as well. Every day I was out there doing my workouts, they were always cheering me on, it was really nice," Villacorta said, "I learned to give myself a lot of grace and to support my teammates in any way I can."
The second-year midfielder was an integral part of the team's seven-game unbeaten run in the summer of last year. Her stability in the middle of the field mixed with her technical ability and athleticism was a major reason the Pride picked her with their first-round pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft.
"Getting injured at the time, I was just devastated because I know like we were making a run for the playoffs," She said, "It was really devastating, but I was really excited to get back out there, having the support of the staff like my teammates and everyone. It just felt awesome."
Now that she's made her first appearance of the season, Villacorta will look to work her way back to the starting lineup in full and back to the form that she had found in her rookie year. Pride head coach Seb Hines believes that her quality will be integral to their vision for the team.
"She's been out quite a while now, having missed preseason also, but she's a quality player," Hines said, "She'll find a rhythm relatively quickly and she's going to be an important piece for us moving forward."
Villacorta and the Pride now move into a tough week of games, playing North Carolina in the NWSL Challenge Cup on Wednesday, then moving on back to league play on the road on Sunday, taking on the Kansas City Current.
NWSL Challenge Cup Group Stage: Orlando Pride vs. North Carolina Courage
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Exploria Stadium, Orlando
TV: Paramount+ (subscription required)
Tickets: View seats