MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Canadian midfielder Caroline Szwed built an admirable playing résumé during her teenage years.
The Oakville, Ontario native represented her country at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008, months after scooping a bronze medal in Concacaf’s regional youth championship. Szwed then made an instant impression on the college soccer scene, starting all 23 games for West Virginia University and leading the Mountaineers in assists during her freshman season in 2009.
Back-to-back Big East Conference championships followed in Szwed’s sophomore and junior years as she anchored WVU’s midfield and was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2011.
Szwed turned 20 that November, less than one week after West Virginia’s season ended with a loss to Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament. She has yet to log a further minute of playing time.
An innocuous collision in a game against Seton Hall left Szwed with a deteriorating cartilage on her patella that wore away as the season continued. Her right kneecap was later removed with the damaged cartilage re-grown in a lab before being sewn back into place.
West Virginia has since joined the Big 12 Conference, winning the regular-season title last October at its first attempt. Defending the title, starting this weekend on the road at Oklahoma State and Baylor, will involve a significantly depleted roster after midfielders Bryce Banuelos, Kara Blosser and Ali Connelly incurred season-ending knee injuries.
Szwed faces a race against time to return during the short seven-week conference season. WVU’s coaches are assessing her fitness “day by day,” but the 21-year-old Canadian will still play a major role for her team even if she cannot get back on the field.
“Caroline is the type of player that can pick her head up and find seams,” said Nikki Izzo-Brown, WVU’s only head coach since the school started its women’s soccer program in 1995. “Most of the game is about decision-making, and she has that coach’s mentality of knowing where to go with the ball.”
Szwed’s long recovery from her operation began with cardio work involving bikes and underwater treadmills and exercises to strengthen the quad muscles supporting her troubled joint. As her fitness improved, she rejoined her teammates in light training exercises and re-acquainted herself with a soccer ball. She moved onto participating in scrimmages and featured in West Virginia’s exhibition games last April.
The school’s conditioning coach worked with Szwed throughout the summer and she played pick-up games on campus to build her confidence on the ball. Her concerns about the injury gradually subsided.
“I don’t think about it when I’m on the field because I’ve got so much adrenaline,” Szwed told The Soccer Observer. “I’m just happy to be there after being out for so long.
“If I get fouled, I just get right back up.”
A setback arose in July when Szwed felt greater discomfort in the knee than she had experienced during the spring exhibitions. Further treatment and rehabilitation work prevented her from playing in the non-conference part of this year’s college season.
“It’s hard for me because I’m supposed to be back,” Szwed said. “The teams we’re playing now are really, really good, and I wouldn’t want to be putting anyone in a position where I would let the team down.
“That’s my biggest fear.”
Szwed’s role for the time being remains passing on the invaluable knowledge accumulated from her progress through Canada’s national youth set-up and three stellar college seasons to WVU’s young midfielders.
* * * * *
West Virginia traveled to Durham, N.C. earlier this month for games against the No. 12 ranked Duke and No. 1 North Carolina. Szwed stayed in Morgantown to rest her troubled knee, but her presence remained with her teammates.
“She wrote little note cards to everybody before we left with tiny inspirational messages,” said WVU goalkeeper Sara Keane, who has kept her note pinned up at her apartment. “It was something we could read to remind ourselves that someone is cheering is on.”
Keane knows Szwed’s mind as well as anyone on the WVU roster having also missed an entire season with a knee injury since joining the program in 2009. She describes the midfielder as “easily the most soccer smart player” on the team with an ability to see things that others cannot.
“She was the best midfielder in the Big East during the last year we were in it,” Keane told The Soccer Observer. “Her presence on the field was phenomenal. She still brings that presence off the field.
“Caroline always has insight when Izzo asks if there’s anything we’ve noticed during our film review sessions,” Keane said. “Most of us sit quietly because we don’t want to give a wrong answer.
“She takes it if she’s wrong, but most of the time she’s not wrong.”
West Virginia’s victory over Wright State last Sunday offered Szwed an opportunity to pass on her knowhow. The Mountaineers suffered a first-half wobble when the visitors canceled out Frances Silva’s opening goal within two minutes of falling behind. Szwed focused her energy on sophomore Amanda Hill, encouraging the holding midfielder to keep playing her game and to lift those around her. WVU ran out 4-1 winners with Hill notching the decisive third goal.
“I hear her at half-time talking to Amanda about decision-making, how to change the point of attack and how to break down the back line,” Izzo-Brown said. “She’s constantly giving her important tidbits.”
Freshman Ashley Lawrence is another young midfielder benefitting from Szwed’s experience. Her decision to attend West Virginia was largely influenced by the success of Szwed and Bry McCarthy, two players that inspired Toronto native Lawrence as she followed their path through Canada’s youth structure.
“It’s a very big change coming here,” said Lawrence, who has earned seven senior appearances for Canada this year. “Right off the bat, she offered her help any time I need someone to talk to.
“Just having that role model figure that I can talk to about anything, besides soccer, is an amazing feeling.”
* * * * *
Overcoming adversity is a trait that runs in Szwed’s family.
Her father, Marek, fled his hometown of Nysa near Poland’s border with the Czech Republic during the country’s period of Communist rule. He received permission from the government to visit a relative in Germany for two weeks and never returned. He hired a car, drove to France and sneaked onto a cargo ship bound for an unknown destination. It docked in Montreal. Three years elapsed before his wife, Agata, and young son joined him in Canada.
“When I went to Poland, he showed me all of his little hiding spots where he used to keep his soccer ball because it wasn’t allowed in the house,” Szwed said. “That’s where I get it from.
“He’d skip classes to go and play soccer.”
Attending class became Szwed’s immediate concern in the spring of 2012 after her surgery forced her to juggle studies toward a bachelor’s degree in English with an intensive rehabilitation program. She spent eight hours a day for six weeks with her right leg inside a continuous passive motion machine that bends and straightens the knee to gently aid its recovery.
“I was supposed to stay out of classes for two weeks,” Szwed said. “The maximum amount I was allowed to miss was three classes, so I went along drugged up on Percocet.
“I was so depressed and distraught from the surgery that my schoolwork took me away from thinking about soccer and thinking about not being at morning practices or hanging out with my teammates.
“I ended up getting a 4.0 that semester.”
Szwed’s parents helped their daughter through the terrible moods following her operation, listening to her vent for hours on the telephone or via Skype. Her soccer bond with her father extends to attending Toronto F.C. games together whenever she visits home, and he helped to soothe her feelings of self-doubt as Szwed contemplated her return to action.
“My biggest worry was that everyone else would be at this level where they’ve been playing for a year and a half while I’ve been out,” Szwed said.
“I talked to my dad and said ‘I’m scared. My first step is not going to be as explosive as it was. What if I don’t connect my passes? What if I’m completely off?’
“I have to credit him for telling me ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ve been out for a while but it will come back.’ “
* * * * *
Szwed should have left Morgantown behind after graduating in May.
She might have been drafted into the nascent National Women’s Soccer League like Bry McCarthy, her long-standing friend and colleague with Canada and WVU who earned a professional contract with the Western New York Flash after being named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Or she might have been working in another field.
Instead, she is still fighting to return to head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown’s line-up while undertaking a graduate degree at WVU’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Szwed said. “As much as it sucked being out for a year, now I can get another degree that I wanted to do because I eventually want to go into television broadcasting.”
Many of Szwed’s Canadian peers from the U-17 World Cup roster took part in the U-20 tournament in Japan in 2012. McCarthy and Tiffany Cameron, a forward with the NWSL’s F.C. Kansas City, represented Canada’s senior team at this year’s Cyprus Women’s Cup.
The fluent Polish speaker dismisses hard luck stories relating to her stalled playing career while others around her have progressed.
“Bry has always been one of my closest friends,” Szwed said. “Seeing her accomplish the Big 12 Defender of the Year award and going on to play for the New York Flash is amazing for me.
“Knowing that people who I considered family were doing well made me feel so much better when I couldn’t play.”
Women’s soccer in Canada has been riding a wave in recent years. The reigning Concacaf Gold Cup champions rebounded from a controversial semi-final defeat by the United States in last summer’s Olympic Games to beat out France for the bronze medal. Canada hosts the Women’s World Cup in 2015 with raised expectations that John Herdman’s team can at least match the country’s semi-final appearance of 2003.
“That’s always in the back of my mind,” Szwed admitted. “But right now I’m taking things day by day. I want to come back and play West Virginia soccer the most.
“I have to thank my coaches and my teammates so much for everything that they’ve helped me through.
“The biggest way I can repay them is to get back on the field and help them win a Big 12 championship.”
Sept. 16, 2013 — Kentucky Loss Leaves West Virginia Women With The Blues
Aug. 7, 2012 — Canadians Air Grievances Over Semi-Final Referee
Aug. 7, 2012 — Canada Stunned By Capricious Referee, Morgan’s Late Winner