Less than three weeks before the 2022 World Cup, LAFC’s starting goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau made a decision that would change the course of his life and precipitate the thrilling final moments of the 2022 MLS Cup Final.
Deep in extra time, while Philadelphia Union and LAFC were in a deadlock, Crépeau, in an effort to prevent the Union’s Corey Burke from capitalizing on a weak back pass from Jesus Murillo, collided with the Philly forward. He not only received his first professional career red card, but the resulting leg fracture led to a journey in the art of recovery, a delicate balancing act between physical, emotional, and mental realms. Max’s progression through stages of grief mirrors those LAFC as a whole is currently experiencing across the 2023 season, a year that began with elated energy surrounding possibilities of multiple trophies but is now in retreat, as tired players seek a respite from the rigor of simultaneous tournaments.
“We put all the effort in to win the first trophy of the year. We lost it,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela reflected. “So, we have to forget about that. This break will be really good for us to really reset our minds, our bodies, and re-start to fight for a new title. I think this year we have different options. But we have to be mentally prepared.”
Crépeau is no stranger to just how crucial acceptance is in the process of grief, and his personal grieving experience over the events of November 5, 2022 continued for weeks after the celebratory high from his team’s win that day wore off. It was less than three weeks to the FIFA World Cup, an event that Crépeau had spent years training for but took mere seconds to vanish from his grasp.
“Leading up to the World Cup, I was just really sad about the reality of missing out on this. I was working for the last 10 years to get there. It was a big event to miss out on, especially for Canada who qualified for the first time in 36 years.” Max was in the thick of depression, one of the telltale hallmarks of grief. “Now I’m able to say it – everything happens for a reason, and I see the bigger picture. But in the moment, it was difficult to see it. There were some difficult and dark days,” he openly admitted. Throughout the course of his struggles as he strove to cope with the reality that he was in a boot, on crutches and in a wheelchair and not on course to represent his country in their historic return to the World Cup, he leaned on his wife Cristina for support.
“It was really difficult to move and accept it and move away from the initial injury,” he explained. “It’s important to find that person. It can be a stranger, a therapist, a friend, a loved one. It’s important to find that person to accept it to empty your emotions, whatever you have in your mind. It’s difficult to do at first, because you have to accept and then move on and talk about it.”
As Canada began their group stage matches, Max’s emotional torture had transformed into an excitement seeing his nation represented. “It was good to see from a football perspective what work needs to be done in the next three years.” But his mental work was just beginning. A couple months after the accident, he began also working with the club’s sports psychologist as a component of his rehab process.
LAFC have played through two-thirds of their 2023 MLS Season without their former starting goalkeeper, and two tournaments have come and gone, in the time that Max has been recovering from his injuries. And while he is not sure of the date of his return to the pitch in competitive action, he’s been training with his teammates and doesn’t even think about his leg as something holding him back.
“There were a lot of ups and downs through that journey because of the rehab process, but right now, I’m feeling well. I’m training with the team. It feels good when you’re able to do your daily activities and join the team and be in a normal way of life,” Max smiles, pauses, and then continues. “Back to normal. It does feel nice. Now it’s just a matter of momentum and rhythm.”
Crépeau, who not only has witnessed his team’s difficulties this season but also shared in their celebrations and heartbreaks as he is in the training facility daily, emphasized their deep need for the month-long break from MLS league play.
“The month was difficult because momentum gets away from you, and it plays a little bit in your head at some point. It’s difficult to go from back-to-back-to-back, but the team was able to find a way back against St. Louis City and fight. When we stick to our principles and we work hard physically, we fight for our identity,” he concludes.
The MLS season isn’t a race. It’s a marathon. And right now, last year’s Supporters Shield and MLS Cup winners are in the middle of the long game, looking ahead while still accepting the failure of the CONCACAF Champions League campaign that had seemed all but winnable to a physically fit and in-form team that was well-rested and had a home advantage in the final leg. Like Max’s situation, they put all their energies and hopes into one event that disappeared just out of reach.
For LAFC it was hoisting the inter-league trophy as a symbol of strength and growth, but when they fell short of that goal, the ensuing grief cycle was not easy to recover from, nor was it one they were prepared for. Each player has had their own way of coping, leading to individuals falling out of team dynamics and strategy, and ultimately culminating in a series of disjointed and inconsistent results. But just like his teammates, Max echoes a goal that remains the same for all of them. “I’m always pushing myself to a higher level. I want to lift more trophies here in Los Angeles,” he reiterates.
Max is continuing to work towards his next opportunity to represent Canada, and that time may be coming soon with the 35-year-old tried and true Milan Borjan forced out of the Gold Cup group stage with an undisclosed injury edging him closer to retirement. In the meantime, LAFC’s and Max’s recovery journeys continue, and when the time is right, they will converge. “I come with a mentality of winning. This hasn’t changed. This is my priority.”