Knee Injuries Force Canadian Soccer Star Kara Lang to Retire

For years soccer had been Kara Lang‘s life.

But when her right knee began throbbing with pain each time she stepped on the pitch, the Canadian international knew she had other things to live for.

Lang, one of Canada’s best women soccer players, announced her retirement Wednesday. It wasn’t an easy decision for the 24-year-old midfielder-forward. But deep in her heart, Lang realized it was better to walk away from the game than spend the rest of her life limping.

“There was talk of possibly needing a knee replacement by my mid-30’s,” Lang said in a telephone interview from her hometown of Oakville, Ont.

“It just got to the point there are so many other things I want to do with my life. I want to be healthy when I do them. That was something that was seriously going to be in question if I continued playing.”

Lang burst onto the soccer scene as a teenager. She was the first 15-year-old to play for the national team when she dressed for a March 1, 2002, match against Scotland. She scored her first two goals in her second game on March 3 against Wales.

A promising career, however, was marred by injuries.

She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the W-League in 2006. She ripped up the same knee in 2009 playing college soccer for UCLA.

During a recent training camp in Brazil, Lang had her knee examined. A doctor told her the only option for the constant pain was to continue taking anti-inflammatory drugs.

“That did not sit well with me,” said Lang, who is a vegan.

“I have been on anti-inflammatories for a year straight and can only image what my liver looks like right now. The idea of taking more drugs wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

During her international career Lang scored 34 goals in 92 games. She was a member of the 2002 Canadian team that won a silver medal at the FIFA U-19 women’s World Championship in Edmonton.

“We were all so young and it was really cool to go through that as a team,” Lang said.

She played in two World Cups, scoring two goals in six games in 2003 when Canada lost to the U.S. in the bronze-medal match. Lang also was a member of the Canadian team that played at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Lang’s announcement comes soon after she helped Canada advance to this year’s women’s World Cup in Germany. She considered playing at the World Cup.

“The team is doing well and, in my opinion, has a really good chance at winning the World Cup,” Lang said. “At the end of the day, compromising my health and future happiness just wasn’t worth doing it.”

Karina LeBlanc, Lang’s friend and national team goalkeeper, was saddened, but not surprised, by the retirement.

“In seeing her over the last couple of months you knew something was a little different about her,” LeBlanc said in an interview. “I support her with her decision.

“We are going to be losing a phenomenal teammate and a best friend to so many of us. I think we are happy she is ending it on her note and at a time when she feels optimistic about the future.”

Early on there were comparisons between a young Lang and Christine Sinclair, her teammate who is considered one of the world’s best women’s soccer players.

Even Pellerud, Canada’s women’s coach for nine years, said the comparisons forced too many expectations on Lang.

“In my opinion, (they) made no sense at all,” Pellerud said in a telephone interview from Trinidad and Tobago, where he now coaches the national women’s team. “They were two very different persons, very different players.”

Sinclair was born with natural ability while Lang “had to rely more on her physique and willpower,” said Pellerud.

“She was more the hard work and all the effort.”

On the pitch Lang’s size and strength made her an intimidating force. She wasn’t fast but her most feared weapon was a booming shot.

“As a keeper, she had the hardest shot I had ever faced from a woman,” said LeBlanc. “You just hoped to get in the way.”

Besides her knee problems, Lang suffered a stress fracture in her foot which sidelined her for the final game of the Whitecaps’ regular season last fall and all three W-League playoff matches.

In five seasons with the Whitecaps, Lang appeared in 36 games and scored 14 goals, including four game-winners. She helped the team win the W-League championship in 2004.

Lang and former men’s team captain Martin Nash were chosen to model the Whitecaps’ new Major League Soccer uniforms at a press conference several months ago.

“Though Kara was only 16 when she first joined us in 2003, she showed maturity beyond her age, both on and off the pitch,” Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said in a statement. “Her talent on the pitch and her commitment to the game and the community made her a great role model for young female players in Canada.”

During her time at UCLA Lang helped the Bruins reach the NCAA championship final in 2005 before losing to the University of Portland. As a freshman she set school records with 17 goals and six assists.

Lang graduated in 2010 with an undergraduate degree in history.

Off the pitch Lang is easygoing and articulate. She loves music and enjoys yoga and surfing. She often wears a diamond stud in her nose and an ornate tattoo decorates her rib cage.

Lang isn’t sure of her long-range plans. She is managing a yoga studio and organizing soccer and surf camps in Costa Rica.

She has no plans to coach soccer but doesn’t rule out working with the media covering the sport.

Making the decision to retire was emotional for Lang, but she leaves the game on her own terms.

“It has been everything it was supposed to be,” she said, voice choking with emotion. “I honestly don’t think I have any more to give physically, mentally or emotionally. I feel like I left it all out there.

“It’s a satisfying feeling. It’s sad for sure, but I’m walking away without any regrets.”

Canadian Press

Photo: Getty Images

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