THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — 2023 was a difficult year for defender Merritt Mathias. Soon after joining Angel City, she suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for the entire season. She had two surgeries, but that was not all. Mathias was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and her dog passed away after 11 years
The devastating events left Mathias questioning whether she loved playing soccer anymore and if she would be capable of playing at a high level when she returned.
“There is this question of, do I still love to do this? Is this what I want to do? It is really isolating when you’re by yourself all the time,” Mathias told The Sporting Tribune.
Despite the challenges, Mathias faced them head-on. She leaned on her teammates, friends, and previous experiences while focusing on executing daily tasks like going on runs, working out, and keeping up with doctor’s appointments. While doing so, Mathias found a community outside of soccer to help her overcome the struggles.
“I found a really great community outside of soccer, which is your chosen family,” Mathias said. “You have to lean into those people when you’re going through something like the year that I had last year.”
At the same time, Mathias regularly supported her Angel City teammates She attended every home match to root them on while expressing herself through fashion.
“I’ve always had a sense of style,” Mathias said. “I’ve always gravitated towards clothes as self-expression. My grandmother was one of seven sisters, and my great aunt was just always dressed to the nines and had like the best jewelry and designer pieces. I’m lucky enough to own some of those now, and I always loved her presence. She was a strong, bold, powerful woman.”
Many of Mathias’s teammates appreciated her being around the team, supporting her in her return. One teammate who was particularly helpful was Sydney Leroux. The two have known each other since their teenage years, and they have a deep friendship. Mathias’s interactions with Leroux’s children, Cassius and Roux, allowed her to take her mind off her injury.
“Being around Cassius and Roux, they have a love for life. You walk into the house, and they are like, ‘auntie.’ It’s really hard to have a bad day or stay stuck in the place you are when someone’s so excited or wants to include you in kicking the ball in the backyard or wants to play dress up,” Mathias said.
“I’m really thankful to Syd and her two kids for embracing me into their family, living down the road, and allowing me to bop in and out whenever I please. The doorbell rings, and they are like, ‘is auntie here?’ I’m really grateful for our friendship and our love for one another, it’s really special.”
Mathias returned the favor when Leroux returned from an ankle injury in June. Leroux missed nearly a year due to the injury, and Mathias wore an outfit with Leroux’s picture as the centerpiece.
While sidelined, Mathias also considered her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in 2019. She felt she gave herself more grace in 2023 because of it.
“I carried myself with a lot more grace and gave myself a lot more grace than I would have if I didn’t experience something like I did in 2019,” Mathias injury. “I’ve created a space between who I am and what I do.”
“It’s a really hard relationship to carry when it feels so interconnected that your worth is tied to a game. To stand somewhere where I know I’m worthy. I know I am all these things. I’m true to myself. I’m authentic. I stand in this space, and I trust that I’m going to be okay, no matter what happens, whether I step on the field or again or if I don’t, it takes nothing away from, who I am and how I show up.”
2023 was a challenging year for Mathias. But, she found a new community and learned to separate her feeling of value from soccer.
“Last year was probably very much the year that I needed. It allowed me to get my health under control and prepare me for what 2024 hopefully holds.”
“It gave me the ability to experience a lot in life that if I was playing, I don’t get those things. And so you get to sit in that, and you’re like, ‘well, I still have a wonderful life. I still have an incredible community around me. And I’m not playing soccer, and that’s okay.’”
Now, Mathias is back. She returned to team training at the start of the 2024 preseason, a moment that helped her recall her love for soccer.
“You step on the field again, and you’re around this group of players and the coaching staff, and everyone’s so supportive, and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, my soul is alive. I love doing this. This was what I love to do. This is what I almost feel like born to do.’”
It looks like Mathias could be a difference-maker in 2024. She has combined well with her teammates in training, showing a glimpse of what could come in matches. Mathias is a leader who brings energy to training sessions and can help young players grow while displaying her own skills. Captain Ali Riley expects Mathias to play a significant role in 2024.
“Merritt [Mathias] was such a source of joy and inspiration when she wasn’t even involved with the team,” Riley said. “So, to have her here and to see her reap the rewards of being healthy, being involved, and being with the team makes me really emotional. I know how hard she’s worked. She’s a leader and wanted to be involved so badly.”
The earliest opportunity for Mathias to return to game action is on Feb. 24, when Angel City plays expansion club, Bay FC, in the preseason at the Coachella Valley Invitational.