“Why, do I look tired?”
Gabarra understood that Matheson, 32, does not tire. Not after 85 minutes on artificial turf in Rochester, N.Y. Not after four World Cups and two – soon to be three – Olympics. Not after a few years in the Norwegian league and four seasons on the latest U.S. women’s pro circuit. Not after major surgery on both knees and fractures in both feet.
No, fatigue did not prompt the change on April 29. With the outcome settled, Gabarra wanted to supply minutes to a young player and help preserve a 5-foot force from Princeton who has helped steer the Spirit to its finest start.
“I need to take care of you,” Gabarra told her, “and I need to think about the other players.”
She has recorded three goals, tied with Chicago’s Christen Press atop the scoring chart entering the NWSL’s five-game weekend slate. An original member of the franchise, Matheson has served this year both in her natural midfield role and on the wing in a three-player front line spearheaded by 2015 league MVP Crystal Dunn.
“We have a good base,” Matheson said. “We probably came into the season with more cohesiveness than a lot of teams that made more changes. We’re in a good, positive place right now.”
So is she after injuries almost prevented her from participating in Canadian soccer’s proudest moment, hosting the Women’s World Cup last summer.
In fall 2014, during a friendly against Japan, Matheson tore her left ACL.
“As soon as I did it, I did the math: How many months until the World Cup?” Matheson said.
Fewer than eight. ACL recoveries require six to nine months. The race was on.
She was on schedule to rejoin the national team in spring 2015 when she broke a bone in her right foot. It was a Jones fracture, a setback common among athletes and one she had suffered in her other foot five years earlier.
If not for the foot, she would have begun testing the knee’s boundaries in the May tuneups and entered the mix for World Cup minutes.
Surely the new setback would prompt her to abandon her World Cup quest.
“Not with the World Cup at home,” said Matheson, who is from the Toronto suburb of Oakville. “That was such a driving factor for the team in wanting to impact soccer in Canada. It was never a second thought. The foot made it tougher, but I was still having too much fun.”
Canadian Coach John Herdman kept faith in her. She missed the three group matches and debuted as a second-half substitute in the quarterfinal defeat to England — her 13th World Cup appearance since 2003.
After Canada’s elimination, Matheson rejoined the Spirit for the conclusion of the season. She was not in peak form but scored three goals in nine matches as Washington qualified for the semifinals for the second consecutive year.
“Most players, their first year back from ACL, they are still recovering, mostly mentally,” said Gabarra, who succeeded Mark Parsons this season. “The second year, they are completely back and sometimes stronger. She is the type of player that age only affects how much you can train her during the week.”
International duty will call again this summer. Matheson, who is second in Canadian international appearances with 181, is expected to join four Spirit teammates at the Olympics in Brazil: Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and defender Shelina Zadorsky, and the U.S. team’s Dunn and Ali Krieger.
Training camps will pull them from the Spirit for up to five matches in July. The league is going dark during the Olympics in August.
Four years ago, Matheson gave her country one of its most indelible moments of the London Games when she scored in stoppage time to beat France in the bronze medal match and then kissed the Canadian badge on her jersey.
“She drives the culture, she drives the team in the sense that she is always leading by example,” Labbe said.
That 2012 tournament also required Matheson to rebound from a knee injury: Nine months earlier, routine arthroscopy turned into more extensive repairs. The extended recovery period tested the Olympic deadline, but she made it back.
As injuries and years have passed, Matheson said she has thought about her future. She does have an economics degree with honors from an Ivy League school, but, she said, “I would love to stay involved in sports,” specifically with Canadian soccer, perhaps someday working in some capacity for an NWSL expansion franchise in Canada.
Academic and athletic interests collide in her observations of the U.S. national team’s labor dispute with its federation.
“All of women’s soccer, no matter what country you are playing for, is watching the case,” Matheson said. “U.S. players are already doing well and they are trying to push it further and set a benchmark for the rest of us.
“If they are successful in gaining greater equality, it’s going to set a precedent that we can use and take to our federation, so we can improve it for the next generation.”
For now, the next generation is drawing from the example she sets on the field.
“Her greatest gift is to come and train as hard as she plays in games,” Gabarra said. “That is something younger players need to see.”
Washington Spirit vs. Houston Dash
Where: Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Records: Spirit 3-0-1, 10 points; Dash 2-1-1, 7 points.
Live stream: NWSL’s YouTube channel.