For Viviana Villacorta, it took one step to turn a dream into a nightmare.
“I think it was 30 seconds left in the half. I just stepped wrong and tore my ACL.”
Villacorta was beginning her senior season at UCLA in February 2021, just a month after being drafted in the first round of the 2021 NWSL Draft by the Orlando Pride. With the soccer season pushed to the spring by the COVID-19 pandemic, Villacorta wanted to finish her college career before joining the Pride in the summer.
Those hopes were dashed in her very first game of the campaign 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 at it, I knew I had torn it. They told me out on the field. It was very devastating.”
Instead of making one last push for a national championship and then turning 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 could do in her senior year,” said Amanda Cromwell, then Villacorta’s head coach at UCLA. “It was devastating…It hurt everybody. Just the emotion of it all, it was hard to rally the troops.”
“Going through it, I never realized it would be as hard as it was, especially mentally.”
With her college career suddenly ended and a long rehab ahead, Villacorta was forced to confront the mental side of the recovery process.
“At one point, I had to go see a therapist,” she said. “It was very helpful and reassuring [to know that] what I’m feeling is completely normal.”
To get through the difficult months of rehab, Villacorta turned to a strong support system. Her father, a massive Peruvian soccer fan, and her three siblings (two older sisters and a younger brother) are a tight-knit group who developed their love of the game together.
“Growing up, all my siblings, we all played. My dad is a personal trainer, so we’d all train together and we’d be very competitive,” she remembered. “We’d help each other and support each other. Being far away from them is hard, but they’ve been my biggest supporters.”
Villacorta also had multiple teammates and coaches, including Cromwell herself, that had been through ACL tears in the past. Villacorta credits Cromwell with helping her through the tough periods of the recovery.
“She was very supportive,” Villacorta said. “When it first happened, she would always talk to me about it, like ‘you got this.’ I’m so glad to have her by my side and be my coach.”
Cromwell leaned on her experience with the injury. “You have some great gains, then you might plateau out. Mentally it can mess with you, because you feel like you’re going to be on this upward trajectory the whole time, that’s not the case. I just tried to remind her to…stay the course, know that it’s a process. I just tried to just let her know we were thinking about her.”
Unable to play, Villacorta watched the Pride’s 2021 season from the sidelines. She saw sweeping changes before she ever set foot on the pitch to train, with the Club changing head coaches, executives, and even ownership between the time she was drafted and the start of the 2022 preseason.
One of those changes, though, was the hiring of Cromwell as the Pride’s head coach.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” Villacorta said with a laugh. “When it got announced, I was like, ‘wow, this is insane.’ She had messaged me and I was really excited, because we already had that relationship. Her being here is just amazing.”
“When she got hurt, I was like, this can’t be the way it goes out with Vivi. I have to coach her again,” Cromwell said. “It was the stars aligning. Just really glad I could be here for her return.”
Villacorta began preseason training with the Pride at the beginning of February, a few days shy of a year since her injury. While fit enough to participate in soccer activities, Villacorta was still behind her teammates as she reached the final stages of recovery.
“There were a lot of ups and downs [in preseason],” Villacorta said. “It was hard. In preseason, you want to come in fit, you want to show out, and I still wasn’t at that point. It was a lot of extra fitness, extra weights, coming in early, staying late. It was definitely a lot, very mental.”
Still a rookie, Villacorta found support from the Pride’s veterans, including midfield leader Gunny Jónsdóttir, the Iceland international who has experienced a staggering three ACL tears in her career.
“Gunny, she’s gone through it,” said Villacorta. “[She] knows exactly what it feels like to be in my position, and so having her also be supportive of me really helped.”
“It’s been a pleasure to see how hard she’s been working to get back on the field,” said Jónsdóttir. “It’s never an easy thing to endure such a hard injury. Coming back from that is not a given, so I’m really proud of Viviana and what she’s done. She’s always first here, arrives first and last to leave, because she knows she needs to put the work in.”
Villacorta did not appear in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup as she wrapped up her recovery. But finally, she was ready to go for a short stint by the regular season opener, May 1 at Exploria Stadium against NJ/NY Gotham FC. With about 20 minutes remaining in the match, Villacorta got the call to enter the game.
“I was definitely a bundle of nerves,” she said. “When they called me to go in, I probably was just looking at the ground, trying not to freak out, but it all happened so fast that I didn’t really have time to think about it. It was definitely more excitement and just thinking back about the last 15 months, how hard it’s been and how much I’ve been through to finally get to that point. And [to] play and step on the field at Exploria was just amazing.”
Villacorta replaced Jónsdóttir in the 72nd minute and played out the final 18 minutes and stoppage time without incident. While the Pride fell 3-0, the moment meant so much more than one result for Villacorta.
“At the end of the game, I was just like, ‘wow, okay, that happened!’” she recalled. “A debut and first game back from ACL. I was just a mess, I was crying so much, but it was just happiness.”
After all games, regardless of the scoreline, the Heineken Star of the Match is awarded via fan vote to the night’s top Pride player. Jónsdóttir received the award for the game, but something about it didn’t sit right.
“When [Club communications director] Jackie [Maynard] came up to me and handed me the trophy, my gut was just to give it to [Viviana],” said Jónsdóttir. “For me, it was about Viviana that night. I’ve been through it, I know what she has been going through. I wanted her to have something to remember that game by.”
“It meant the world to me,” said Villacorta about receiving the award from Jónsdóttir. “She’s such a mentor to me. She’s helped me through this throughout the whole journey of me being here. Just seeing her do that just shows her character and how selfless she is.”
Villacorta took the trophy back to the dressing room and immediately called her father.
“We were just laughing,” said Villacorta with a smile. “My mom was on the phone too. He just asked me ‘how did it feel?’ and I was like, ‘it felt amazing!’ Once I stepped on the field, I wasn’t that nervous. I got into the rhythm of it, and he was just like, ‘you looked great!’ You know how dads are. They hadn’t seen me play or train, so they were definitely really happy.”
The following week, Villacorta and the Pride traveled to Villacorta’s hometown of Los Angeles to face Angel City FC for the first time. While Villacorta did not feature in the match, the Pride picked up their first win of Cromwell’s tenure, winning 1-0 at a 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 would come to every single game, so I would always see them, and now we get to go to LA. It’s…really, really special.”
With the rehab process finally behind her and a full season ahead, Villacorta has her goals set high for her pro career.
“I want to be Rookie of the Year,” she said. “[I want to] have a positive impact on the team.”
After overcoming a hurdle like a torn ACL, it doesn’t seem wise to bet against her.