Christen Press is a changed person as she nears return from injury: 'I enjoy my life more'

Christen Press hasn’t gone two years without a soccer game since she learned to walk. So when she was laid up by a torn anterior cruciate ligament that took four surgeries and nearly 25 months to repair, she decided to make use of the free time she never thought she’d have.

As a result, the player who returned to training with Angel City this month is not the same one who was carried off the field eight games into the team’s first season.

“I definitely feel like this is the best version of me that I’ve ever known. And I hope it continues to evolve,” Press said Saturday in an interview that was heavy on smiles and optimism.

“I don’t know if I would say I’m a better person. I am a more grounded person. I’m more peaceful. I’m more at ease with myself. I’m more self-aware. I enjoy my life more, absolutely.”

It would be hard for her to be a better player than she was two years ago. A two-time World Cup champion and Hermann Trophy winner whose 64 international goals rank ninth in U.S. women’s national team history, Press was arguably in the best form of her life when she sustained the first major injury of her career.

At first she expected to be back in time for last summer’s World Cup. Then she thought maybe she could play in this summer’s Olympic Games. But the injury proved to be stubborn, and doctors had to go back in three more times for additional repairs.

She’s now 35, and it’s uncertain how her reconstructed knee — and the rest of her body — will hold up when she returns to the field. That question probably will be answered during one of Angel City’s three Summer Cup games, which will be played during NWSL’s seven-week Olympic break.

Given what she has gone through already, Press is confident she can handle whatever comes next.

“Every single day when I go out to the field I asked my knee, ‘Are you ready?’ It’s out of my control in a lot of ways,” she said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, you’re back and everything’s easy.’ My career will never look like it did.

“I want to make it back. I want to see if I can be good.”

Angel City could certainly use the help. The team went into the Olympic break having won only one of its last nine games, falling to 11th place in the 14-team NWSL with 10 games to play.

Press is likely to be ready for significant playing time when the season resumes in late August, but she might not be the only addition to the roster. With the transfer window opening soon, Angel City is nearing deals on two significant summer signings, said one person close to the team who is not authorized to speak publicly on personnel matters.

Despite the injury, Press was never really inactive. Physical therapy after each operation ate up much of her time, and she said she still does four to six hours of daily exercises just to keep the swelling down.

“Honestly, it’s a full-time job for her,” said Sarah Smith, Angel City’s director of medical and performance.

Still, she used the opportunity to work on other things as well. Press said she started therapy — the mental kind, not the physical kind — last September.

“I was like, ‘Well I have all this additional time that I can’t be on the pitch. What can I do with it?’ ” she said. “And I had a lot to work through, like my childhood, but also a changing life.

“Being healthy and strong has been my whole career, right? But it hurt to go up and down the stairs. It was a very big shift in identity.”

She has also devoted more time to the eclectic business empire she and her partner and former teammate Tobin Heath are managing, one that includes RE-INC, a gender-neutral community-driven fashion brand, and the RE-CAP Show, the couple’s entertaining award-winning podcast on women’s soccer.

That has given the whip-smart Stanford graduate a jump-start on the next phase of her life, though she’s not sure when that phase will begin in earnest. Her Angel City contract expires at the end of the season, but Press said that if her knee holds up, she’s not putting any limits on how much longer she might play.

“There’s part of soccer that has been really hard that I don’t miss. And then there’s simultaneously a deep longing and a sadness for not being in the game,” she said. “My body’s craving competition. It’s like a dichotomy.”

If the last two years have produced nothing on the soccer field and have been mostly painful off it, mentally and physically, they’ve been invaluable in many other ways. She’s grown. She’s become stronger, smarter, healthier and wiser. And she promises that’s going to be good for everyone — but especially for her.

“There’s pain and there’s also an opportunity,” Press said. “I have this ideology that things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. So I always ask myself, ‘What’s the gift of this?’

“It’s a happy story. It’s life, you know. It’s happy and it’s sad. [Am I] a better person?’ No, I’m different.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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