A-C-L. They can be the most frightening three letters an injured player hears. The anterior cruciate ligament. Pliable although not elastic, it connects the bones and pretty much holds the knee together.
Three prominent U.S. players suffered torn ACL's in 2002. Chris Armas missed the 2002 World Cup after going down a month before the tournament. Josh Wolff and Claudio Reyna suffered their tears in August and October, respectively.
''Of course it's always bad to suffer an injury like this,'' says Reyna. ''But when I think about how Chris Armas' injury happened right before the World Cup, I consider myself lucky.''
Reyna captained the United States to its quarterfinal finish in South Korea, then returned to his English Premier League club Sunderland, which he had joined in 2001 from Glasgow Rangers in midseason. He played 17 games in 2001-02 and Sunderland narrowly avoided relegation.
This season, Sunderland had won three and tied three - including a 1-1 result with Manchester United - when Reyna's season ended in the 11th game. With Reyna out, the Black Cats won once in their next 21 games, adding only seven points to the 12 they acquired with their playmaker. Deep in last place, Sunderland will drop into the First Division next season.
''I'm very surprised,'' says Reyna. ''We have a lot of internationals, a good squad and good players on the bench. But there were coaching changes, injuries, and we never got out of the rut.
''Things got from bad to worse - giving up a tying goal late in games we should have won or giving up a winner in the last 10 minutes of games we were about to tie. Once you lose a couple games in a row, it can destroy confidence, which a team needs in the Premier League. No one gifts you any points in the Premier League.''
Reyna was rehabilitating at a Delaware clinic in March when Sunderland hired its third manager of the season. Former Ireland coach Mick McCarthy replaced Howard Wilkinson, who had taken over in October from Peter Reid, the man who purchased Reyna for $6.8 million.
In April, Reyna returned to England. After four months of strength exercises, he's finally able to put on soccer shoes for light training, such as soccer tennis.
''It's hard to say when I'll be at full fitness,'' says Reyna, ''but I'd like to be in action with the national team this summer.''
The United States plays in the Confederations Cup in June and the Gold Cup in July. Reyna hopes to join the national team in training camp for the May 26 game against Wales in San Jose, Calif., where he'll be assessed by national team doctor Bert Mandelbaum, who performed his surgery.
''He's right on track,'' says national team trainer Jim Hashimoto, who helped oversee Reyna's rehab. ''It all looks very good.''
Hashimoto says 10 years ago ACL recoveries lasted between 12 and 18 months.
''Right now, guys can get back to action in six to eight months,'' Hashimoto says. ''It's a combination of advanced surgical procedure - advancement in fixing the graft - and a broader base of knowledge of what's happening with the healing tissue that enables us increase the speed of rehabilitation.''
Hashimoto isn't surprised that the rate of injuries among World Cup players is so high (See box).
''Obviously, a trauma injury can happen to any player at any time,'' he says, ''but if you're playing internationally you get no offseason. This has been Claudio's first break in five or six years, and it was only because he was hurt.
''The long international seasons and club seasons overlap. The pure volume of what these guys are asked to do is tremendous. They've got no offseason to build up strength and rest. That's why you see a lot of nagging, chronic injuries.''
Wolff recovered in time for the 2003 MLS season. Tony Sanneh, who played 15 Bundesliga games for Nuremberg after the World Cup, hasn't seen action since December because of a nagging back injury. John O'Brien was out for almost six months at Ajax with an Achilles' tendon injury.
Back in Sunderland, Reyna says the hiring of McCarthy has created optimism around the club.
''Ireland's performance in the last World Cup and in the qualifying show what a good manager he is,'' Reyna says. ''He's a good person, a nice man and very personable, which is important, because you need a guy to lift everyone up individually and collectively. And that's what he's doing.
''There's a buzz of optimism around, not just among the players and the staff, but among the fans as well. The city is excited, and the feeling is that we'll come right back up to the Premier League next season.''
by Soccer AmericaExecutive Editor Mike Woitalla