Injuries to Matildas stars show how far women's game has to go in sports science - Jack Sharkey

It was the moment that sent a shiver not just down the spine of Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor, but that of Australia coach Tony Gustavsson and everyone involved in the Matildas' program. In just the 12th minute of Lyon's meeting with Barcelona in the Women's Champions League final, Ellie Carpenter was down, and she couldn't continue.

A stretcher emerged to take the defender from the field and while she would later return to celebrate her team's 3-1 triumph on crutches and in a leg brace, Lyon confirmed the feared outcome in the following days: "a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of the right knee."

Carpenter's celebrations with Lyon following their Champions League win masked a period of significant work and uncertainty. She now faces a significant hurdle in a young career that was going from strength to strength and a race against time to be fit for the Women's World Cup, which begins on July 20 next year.

Standard projections for recovery would suggest the wing-back would be mounting her return in the month or two leading into the Women's World Cup,. However, such are the individual factors that go into injuries and recovery, scenarios exist in which she makes a comeback much sooner, or much later.

And these timelines simply represent a return to action, not necessarily a return to form and confidence that has allowed her to become one of the world's most exciting talents.

"It's one of the hardest things you have to come up against in football, when you see a player take a significant injury," Jack Sharkey, Football Australia's head sports scientist for its women's national teams, told ESPN and ESPN's Beyond the Lead Podcast.

"It's heartbreaking because when you're in this environment, most people see an injury like this, think 'oh, they're out' and don't really give it a second thought.

"When you're working with these people so often it's almost like a family member and because you understand what they're going to have to go through it's hard to take.

"But because we are a family we get around those individuals, those players, and support them through that journey over the next few months."

It's the second time Sharkey has seen a player under his charge go down with a dreaded ACL since he was appointed in January but, reflective of broader trends in women's sport, the injuries have long cast a dark cloud over the team.

Just weeks after breaking into the Matildas' squad at the Asian Cup, 19-year-old rising star Holly McNamara tore her ACL while playing for Melbourne City during the 2021-22 A-League Women season -- the second ACL injury of her young career -- and in September of 2021, midfielder Chloe Logarzo ruptured her ACL during the Matildas' friendly defeat to Republic of Ireland.

It's a problem pervasive across women's sports -- particularly with those involving frequent cutting, pivoting, sudden stops and jumping -- and the recent AFLW season was marred by a tide of ACL injuries across its various teams. It's also an area requiring significant more investment and research, and numerous theories have been floated as to the root of the issue. Some are impossible to change but others can be, such as societal attitudes and trends, as well as training and loading protocols.

"With women's football, research is limited," Sharkey said. "And it's certainly an area the world needs to be better in. We need to invest more in academia and research around this.

"It's hard to say what specifically the cause of this is but participation is increasing, and the amount of load and burden put on these players throughout a season is increasing. You look at the last few years, specifically within the women's environment and there's been no real break.

"The body doesn't go well when you have chronic training loads for such a long period of time. Don't get me wrong, chronic training loads and working at higher levels for longer periods of time creates robustness. That's how you get stronger.

"But there will be a limit and there is a risk of burnout or overtraining syndrome if you just keep pushing and pushing and pushing. As the game does become more popular and more money is invested there's this expectation that they should be playing more and more and more. And there is a real need to protect these players and to say have a break when you need it."

Coming from a background in academia, Sharkey possesses some high-profile endorsements to back his views -- including former Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak

"I worked with Jack for two and half years when I was still playing and then when I transitioned to coaching, we still kept in contact," Jedinak said. "Jack was someone you could rely on to get the work done that you needed.

"His all-around understanding of players and their needs was excellent, and you could have a real good chat with him around the physical objectives in terms of prepping for a game or recovering from a game. He backed that up, not only with his knowledge but with his data as well. I found that was probably one of the biggest benefits for me during my time working with him."

That view was echoed by Manchester City and England attacker Jack Grealish.

"I worked with Jack Sharkey for nearly five years and four seasons [at Aston Villa]," Grealish explained. "I was a skinny little lad and I definitely wasn't as fast as I am now, as strong and powerful as I am now. I worked a lot in the gym during those periods with Jack and he has obviously made me a better player physically.

"Whether that be my strength, my pace, my acceleration and even my fitness overall. It was a big impact and there were big benefits during those four to five years with Jack."

The Matildas, and Sharkey's, next challenges will arrive on June 26 and June 29, in friendlies against Spain and Portugal, the squad for which is expected to be announced in coming days.

They present a significant conundrum for coach Gustavsson and his team. On the one hand, previous games against New Zealand, aided by the return of Katrina Gorry, saw them put in performances that were some of the best yet under their Swedish coach and provided foundations that could be built upon.

Conversely, a significant number of the squad such as Chelsea forward Sam Kerr and Arsenal defender Steph Catley have hit the offseasons of their club competitions and are enjoying an extended period of rest and recuperation for the first time in years -- the 2021 break was dominated by the Olympics.

A theme of rotation and player management, therefore, is expected from the squad; presenting both an opportunity for the most established members of the squad to recuperate and for players that find themselves on the fringes to make one final push to break through.

Sharkey couldn't be drawn on the specifics of rotation and rest, but did provide an insight into the thinking that is driving sports science considerations heading into this window and the need for individualised programs and support.

"With this upcoming camp, it's important to look at the long term picture of how we actually peak for a World Cup next year," he said. "There is increasing evidence to show that if you continue to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, further down the line you're going to pay a price for that. So it's important to look at the longitudinal load, what they've done in the last two or three years and say whether this is the right time to take a break.

"With the players, they're in various leagues: some players are in the middle of their seasons and some are in the middle of an offseason. So we need to be careful with how we manage those players who are in the middle of an offseason.

"The intensity of [international football] is going to be significantly higher than what they're going to experience in their own domestic leagues. So that rings a lot of alarm bells. If we don't prepare them appropriately during that time and going into that camp then it's going to be a significant spike in load, a significant spike increase in the risk of injury.

"It's not to say it's not possible and you can plan and build appropriately over these next few weeks, but then you need to assess: what is the best plan moving forward to the World Cup?

"Is that the necessary approach to train consistently during this offseason, going into the World Cup, playing this game and then going into their respective seasons where they won't rest again until we lift that trophy in a year's time?

"Those are the questions you're asking from a sports science perspective."