On Tuesday, World Cup and NWSL champion defender Abby Dahlkemper announced that she’d had successful back surgery, in what many hope is the final chapter of a difficult year plagued by injury and absence.
The Wave declined to clarify Dahlkemper’s surgery due to “privacy” reasons, but the second photo in her post appears to show two screws inserted in her spine.
Dahlkemper has made a few stops on her club journey in recent years, going from the North Carolina Courage to Manchester City and then the Houston Dash, before finding a home at NWSL expansion side San Diego Wave. But the team’s captain didn’t get as much time on the field in 2022 as she had hoped for due to various health reasons.
Questions about Dahlkemper’s form have increased in recent years, but lingering injuries have seemed to play a significant role in her ability to execute on the field and her potential to contribute to her NWSL club and the U.S. women’s national team.
We took a look at the entirety of Dahlkemper’s 2022 availability to try to put together a clearer picture of her status, especially ahead of next year’s World Cup.
Perhaps signaling the year to come, Dahlkemper’s public issues with her back started at the beginning of 2022. After being called up to the USWNT camp for the SheBelieves Cup in February, she had to withdraw due to a back injury and was replaced by Trinity Rodman.
Dahlkemper’s most consistent playing time in 2022 came during the early stages of the Challenge Cup through the middle of May. She started all five of San Diego’s Challenge Cup group stage matches and rejoined the USWNT for two April friendlies against Uzbekistan, starting in one match and coming off the bench for 9-1 and 9-0 wins.
A bout with COVID-19 in late April landed Dahlkemper on San Diego’s availability report as “under COVID protocols.” She wrote on her Instagram at the time: “I have unfortunately tested positive for covid. I am so sad to be missing the game tonight but will be cheering from home.”
Dahlkemper cleared COVID-19 protocols by San Diego’s May 1 match against Houston but did not play or feature on the bench. She did rejoin the Wave in early May and played in two regular season matches.
In a 4-0 win over Gotham on May 7, Dahlkemper had to leave the match in the 35th minute with what appeared to be a non-contact injury, after the broadcast showed San Diego trainers tending to her back and neck. She walked off the pitch under her own power, and head coach Casey Stoney said that the team was dedicating the win to the defender. She did not play in the team’s next match, a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars on May 15.
On May 18, Dahlkemper played a full 90 minutes in San Diego’s 1-0 loss to Racing Louisville, but her passing completion dipped to 63.9 percent, a season-low to date.
Dahlkemper then fractured her ribs prior to the team’s next match. On Instagram, Dahlkemper wrote about the frustration of taking another step-back: “2022 has already been a year full of adversity for me, but throughout the trials it has allowed me to realize the pure joy and happiness playing soccer with my teammates brings me.”
She continued, “Although I’m so sad to face another setback, I am more determined than ever to get back on the field as soon as possible. I love this club and I love this city and I can’t wait to be back.”
Dahlkemper’s rib injury sidelined her throughout the month of June, but she returned to NWSL play in July despite missing out on the USWNT’s roster for both June friendlies and the Concacaf W Championship.
She started all four of San Diego’s matches in July and was frequently paired with Kaleigh Rhiel in the absence of Naomi Girma, who was away on international duty for much of the month. Dahlkemper played 90 minutes in all but the last match of July, a 1-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars in which she was paired with Girma. She left that match in the 58th minute after being ejected for a second yellow card on a tackle.
When asked about Dahlkemper’s possible return after serving her one-game suspension on August 7, Stoney told the media, “Abby is our captain, so she becomes available next week, but she needs to fight for her shirt now, just like any player. She knows that and she wants to work hard to get back with the team.”
The manager also noted her captain’s essential presence in the locker room and her satisfaction with Rhiel (who on Thursday signed a contract extension with the club through 2024).
Dahlkemper was available off the bench for the rest of the month of August but didn’t see the pitch.
Dahlkemper’s final two games of the year came in September. She played a full 90 minutes alongside Girma in San Diego’s 1-0 win over Angel City FC on Sept. 17. On Sept. 25, she started against the Orlando Pride.
In the 20th minute of that match, the defender appeared to hit her breaking point. Similar to her exit from the match in May, Dahlkemper sat down early in the game despite no contact, holding her back and unable to continue. Riehl subbed in at the 23rd minute and closed out the regular season alongside Girma.
After Stoney told the media in October that Dahlkemper was “100 percent out,” the 29-year-old was finally given a Season-Ending Injury designation on Oct. 15, the day before the club’s first-ever playoff game against the Chicago Red Stars.
On Oct. 29, after San Diego’s season ended in a semifinal loss to the Portland Thorns, Dahlkemper made another announcement on her Instagram: “I wanted to firstly say how appreciative I am to be a part of such an incredible club in the San Diego Wave. With that being said, personally this year has been disappointing in terms of my health and availability … With the advice of doctors and for the longevity of my soccer career and livelihood post soccer I have decided to undergo a procedure on my back.”
In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune in July, Dahlkemper said the bouts of adversity would not stop her “from getting back on the field and playing soccer and kind of doing what I love.” She also commented on her potential return to the USWNT but wouldn’t go so far as to say she is hopeful of returning for the 2023 World Cup.
“Obviously the first thing is I need to get back on the field and be able to play and compete,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for Vlatko, and I know he really values performance in the league and your ability to play well on your club team. That’s just important for me. I’m just trying focus on what I can control, and that’s health to a certain extent and being able to give my best to the team here, the Wave.”
Andonovski reiterated that sentiment earlier this month.
“We’re just hoping everything goes well,” he said. “Once she has the surgery we’re going to know more precisely what the return for her is going to be.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.