Return of Boxx gives U.S. a huge boost
A 1-0 victory against Finland in early March isn't usually the kind of result that would register as anything more than a forgotten bit of agate in the official record for the U.S. women's national team. Friday's win in pool play of the Algarve Cup (in Faro, Portugal), however, may mark a turning point in the national team's road to the World Cup. And the game's significance had little to do with the final score.
After playing the full 90 minutes against Finland, Shannon Boxx is back.
A finalist for FIFA's Women's Player of the Year in 2005, Boxx made it through just nine games with the national team in 2006 before a hip injury that required surgery in May knocked her out of action for eight weeks.
Unfortunately, that injury turned out to be little more than an afterthought on Boxx's medical record after she tore the ACL and MCL in her right knee while training with the team in July.
Although rehab wasn't a new experience, bouncing back from two different surgeries to repair the damaged ligaments took a toll on a player who had gone from an uncapped surprise addition to the 2003 World Cup team to someone widely regarded as the world's best defensive midfielder at the time of her knee injury.
"I've been through rehab, I went to the same rehab I did with my hip and my knee previously, so I had an idea of what it was like," Boxx said. "But yeah, mentally, there were definitely some tough moments."
And as her teammates embarked on their domestic schedule in the summer and eventually World Cup qualifying at the Gold Cup this past November, Boxx went back to square one.
"Simple balance and agility things were tiring," Boxx recalled. "You know, I was tired and I was getting winded pretty quickly, and frustrated because there were things I could do so easily before and now really had to focus on them. So there were definitely moments during rehab when I was like, 'This is not going fast enough.'"
Buoyed by the support of her teammates, as well as being cleared to resume running nearly halfway through her rehab, Boxx endured the tough times and found herself back on the soccer field in January. She participated in light drills with the team during a residency camp, which preceded a trip to China in January for the Four Nations Cup, but it wasn't until the team's second camp in February that national team coach Greg Ryan was truly able to put her through the paces and determine what kind of role she could handle in Portugal.
"We've got a good working relationship," Ryan said at the end of that camp. "As soon as I saw her back on the field, you can tell, she's ready. And if she starts looking like she's really gassed, we'll give her a break. But pretty much we're letting her push herself as far as she wants to go right now, and she's completely cleared from the medical side for that."
Boxx admits her coach still has to encourage her to be patient at times, but she's realistic enough to put the big picture ahead of day-to-day frustrations.
"I think it's just going to take a little bit of time to get back in," Boxx said. "I think agility and quickness and reaction to the ball, those are things I haven't had to do in a long time. And you can't mimic that at practice without a ball. That's kind of where I've gotten behind a little bit. Offensively, touch on the ball, that's coming back already.
"Defense, what I'm usually so great at, is what I know I'm going to work on to get to that point again. That's going to be my focus, to get that part back, to get my strengths back first. And then the bonus is getting the offensive side back."
By returning on the short end of the seven-to-eight month rehab timetable and making the trip to the Algarve, Boxx will have a good number of games in which to regain her form before the World Cup. And few players offer quite as complete an array of skills as Boxx does when she is healthy.
"I think she has all the qualities you'd hope to find in a holding midfielder," Ryan said "Great in the air winning head balls, great defender, great at holding the ball under pressure and keeping possession -- she plays a quarterbacking role for us, great distribution. And then she's got the ability to score goals, not only in the flow of play, but she's very, very dangerous on set pieces, corner kicks and free kicks. She's really as complete a package as you can find in a holding midfielder."
Of course, the value of Boxx's return isn't necessarily in fixing a glaring weakness at her old position. Leslie Osborne stepped in at holding midfielder last year and put together a breakout campaign with one of the strongest years of any player on the roster. Boxx herself was quick to single out Osborne for her outstanding play.
But even if the midfield picture has grown crowded with Osborne stepping in, Carli Lloyd emerging as a factor (Lloyd had goals in each of the team's opening two games in Portugal) and Lori Chalupny getting more time at the position, there is no doubt that a healthy Boxx is the cornerstone of the unit on and off the field.
A rookie with no international experience when she was thrust into the starting lineup during the 2003 World Cup, Boxx is now an important veteran presence on a young team.
"I look back now and I think I was just so shocked and so surprised to be named to the team," Boxx said of the 2003 tournament. "I think I just really enjoyed the process of playing in that World Cup -- the first time putting the jersey on, the first time scoring a goal. And now I'm considered a veteran, so I see it so differently coming to the World Cup this time around."
The United States didn't know what it had with Boxx in 2003, and her performance was one of the few highlights in an otherwise disappointing third-place finish.
Four years later, everyone knows exactly what Boxx means to the team. And that's why getting her back on the field in March could be a key to success in September.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.