Canadian midfielder Victoria Pickett was in a self-described “dark place” in April of 2019. While playing in a spring game for her college team at Wisconsin she suffered a devastating knee injury: a torn ACL, MCL, MPFL, PCL and lateral meniscus, along with a dislocated knee and bone impact fracture.
She wasn’t sure if, or when, she would play soccer again.
Two years later, she is three games into her professional career with Kansas City in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“It's weird to think about, because I felt I was in a very low place at that time,” Pickett told TSN. “And now to be in this position here…. even though it's taken a while, I'm still very blessed to be here.”
Pickett has started in all three of Kansas City’s games during the NWSL Challenge Cup so far, earning high praise from her coach, Huw Williams.
“Love Victoria Pickett,” Williams said after Kansas City’s game last Monday against the Houston Dash. “She’s good. She’s able to beat players with ease – kind of glides past players with first touch, sets her up for that penetrating dribble.”
“I think she's been away from the game for a while, so I think she's surprising herself even in what she's able to do on the pitch,” Desiree Scott, midfielder for Kansas City and Canada’s national team, told TSN. “I find she's just brilliant on the ball, confident to dribble at pace, her change of direction is incredible, and she's really just becoming herself and honing in on who she is as a player and really being pretty lethal in our attack.”
Pickett also earned an assist in her debut game against the Portland Thorns on Apr. 9, setting up captain Amy Rodriguez inside the box for a volley.
She has seen a lot of time on the pitch, especially for a rookie, playing all but one minute in her first two games. She was forced out of last Monday’s match in the 30th minute due to illness.
“I think I expected that from myself,” Pickett said of her early success. “I set that goal to be a starting player. I won't lie – I was kind of surprised about starting from the get-go. But it was nice to have the confidence of the coaching staff.”
Although Pickett has enjoyed accomplishments on an individual level, she laments the fact that Kansas City has yet to win a game, losing to Portland and Houston while drawing with the Chicago Red Stars. Kansas City wraps up the Challenge Cup on Monday night against OL Reign before starting the regular season on May 15 versus Racing Louisville.
Like all rookies, Pickett, 24, is learning about the pro game as she goes.
“I was really nervous,” she said about starting her first match as a professional, which was also her first time playing the full 90 minutes in two years. “I was literally shaking – my legs felt so heavy.
“Literally within the first few minutes I was like, ‘Whoa, this is a lot faster, way more physical.’ The play is just quicker, my movements have to be quicker. In practices and everything, the intensity level is just that much higher.
“But that's something I love because I've always wanted that camaraderie or common goal to have intense sessions. Not that in college we didn't, but this is everyone's job. Everyone wants to be the best at their job. So I think everyone's bringing it in training and obviously in games the stakes are much higher. It’s definitely cool to say that this is my career.”
Pickett also now has a chance to play alongside fellow Canadian Scott, who was one of her idols growing up.
“That’s news to me,” Scott, 33, said with a smile. “That's pretty sweet and cool that I can inspire the younger ones coming up.”
“She's been so, so, so lovely, both on and off the pitch,” said Pickett. “She really explains things well, tactically, and just demands the best out of me, which is nice because if I want to raise my level to where she's at, it's nice that she can provide that feedback for me to help me get there.”
“She gets pretty hard on herself after mistakes,” said Scott. “I mean, we all do as players. We want to be our best, but I just tell her to be her and bring that every single day. It's pretty simple advice.”
Pickett grew up in Barrie, Ont., and picked up soccer at a young age, following in the footsteps of her older brothers, Marcus and Dylan. She played for her hometown club as well as Glen Shields FC before starting her collegiate career with Wisconsin, although she almost went to another Big Ten team, Ohio State.
Pickett said she was “more than convinced” that she would be a Buckeye, but her father had set up a meeting with Wisconsin and urged her to go.
“I was like, “I don’t even know what’s in Wisconsin!’” she said with a laugh. “So we go in, and as soon as we got on campus, I was like, ‘Oh, I like Wisconsin.’ The campus is awesome, academics are great, athletics are amazing…. Once I visited, I fell in love. I love the place and the people are incredible.”
She made an immediate impact with the Badgers, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015. After redshirting in 2016, her best season came as a junior in 2018, when she was named a first-team All-American and was a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy, given annually to the best NCAA soccer player.
“I don't think I would have achieved those accolades if it weren't for my teammates,” Pickett said. “So a huge, huge thanks to them, and obviously, the coaching staff as well. But I think I knew also that I just wanted to be a professional soccer player. I wanted to play in the NWSL.”
Coming off the success of 2018, where Wisconsin also made it to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Women’s College Cup, Pickett was looking forward to her senior year.
But that all changed in a spring game against Marquette in April 2019. Playing on a turf field, Pickett was making a run down the line and had called for the ball.
“The ball was being played to me, and all of a sudden I just felt like I got hit from the left side,” she said. “And then that was when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that really hurts.’ And I looked down, I was like, ‘Oh, my knee’s to the left of my leg right now.’”
Pickett said she never did find out who tackled her, only that it was a freshman.
“It was a hard pill to swallow, just because the 2018 season I finished off on a high, and I wanted to continue that trajectory,” she said. “I felt like everything was just collapsing in that one single moment. It was a really weird feeling to have that thought like, ‘Everything is gone now.’ And just from one single moment – it’s very devastating, honestly.”
When Pickett found out the extent of her injury, with tears to five ligaments as well as bone damage, she said there was one prevailing thought.
“Now that I'm here, I can say that it was denial,” she said. “I couldn't even cry, just because I felt so empty. And I was like, ‘No, no, that wouldn't happen to me, because I do everything right off the field.’”
With the benefit of hindsight, Pickett now has a clearer picture of what her mentality was at the time.
“I was just in a very low spot, and I don't think it helped that I also didn't reach out to people,” she said. “A lot of self-sabotaging in the sense, ‘I can handle this on my own. This doesn't have anything to do with anyone else. It's all me. I need to do this. No one else can understand.’ Which was just the wrong mentality, but it’s just the position that I found myself in.
“It probably took me about three months or so to realize, ‘You are okay, everything's fine.’ And that was after I started talking more and speaking about my frustrations. I was bottling it up so much that I was just in a dark place. So when I was able to start talking to people and I met my boyfriend at that time, and he helped a ton with just realizing that this is only just a minor setback.”
Pickett also gained strength from her mother, Vanda, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.
“Her words have really resonated with me,” she said. “After I chatted with her about my knee one time, I remember asking her, ‘How do you go through this process of having cancer and still be positive and not show any sort of despondency?’
“It was weird to see because it was such a terrible time for her, but she never showed that to me and my siblings. And she had said, ‘It's not the situation that you're in that defines your character. It's how you define the situation that does.’”
To memorialize her own adversity as well as honour her mother’s words, Pickett got a tattoo on her upper right arm: define the situation.
“I think after having gone through my own, I realized, ‘Okay, I'm not just an injured player. I’m Victoria Pickett. I'm strong, and I can get to where I want. The goals are still the same. The path is a little different, but nonetheless, you can still reach those goals because they are attainable still.’”
While her knee healed over time and after surgery, Pickett was never able to play her senior year, finishing her career at Wisconsin with five goals and 11 assists in 57 games. She was selected 15th overall by Kansas City in the NWSL draft this January, which came as a shock to her.
“I truly did not think I was going to get drafted, just because of the extensive injury and because I hadn't played for almost two years,” she said. “So right away, it's just nice having the confidence of Coach Williams and the rest of the coaching staff know what I am capable of doing, and that the injury was only a setback.”
Pickett also gives credit to Williams and the Kansas City coaching staff for helping her through some preseason struggles.
“They've helped me realize my own potential, because I think a lot of times, I'll think, ‘Oh, you know, maybe I'm not as good as I once was.’ I think a lot of self-doubt was popping up earlier on in preseason… I think because at college, you're one of the best players on your team, and you're – I don't want to sound cocky, but you're kind of used to it. Your teammates can rely on you. ‘If we get the ball to Vic, she can get out of it, and she can help on the attack.’
“Whereas here, everyone is very, very good. So I think it was difficult for me to understand – you're not the best player. Maybe you have the ability to be the best, but right now, there are other really good players.
“But it was nice, because [Williams] would come and chat with me, him and the other coaching staff, they've told me, ‘Just believe in yourself. You're here for a reason. We want you playing for a reason, because why else would we pick you?’”
Williams also helped Pickett receive her first call-up to the Canadian national team in February. Bev Priestman, Canada’s head coach, said Williams had been “very complimentary” of Pickett’s game, earning her an invite to camp for the SheBelieves Cup, although she was not named to the final roster for the four-nation tournament held in Orlando in February and is still awaiting her first cap.
“I wasn't expecting it at all,” she said. “It was funny because Coach Williams had called me and he’s like, ‘I think you’re going to get a call from Bev Priestman soon. Just be on the lookout.’ I'm like, ‘Me?’ This can't be right.’
“Obviously being able to get a senior call-up is something that I've been working so hard for. Again, just such a surreal feeling and this just can't be real. But it was awesome and I learned a lot while being there.”
Pickett played for Canada at the under-17 and under-20 levels and also represented her country at the 2015 Pan Am Games. At the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, she was teammates with many of the current senior team players, including Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, and Janine Beckie. She also participated in the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup.
She had the chance to join Canada again for a pair of friendlies in early April but decided to stay with Kansas City to earn a role with her club.
“I figured if I want to be the best that I can be for Canada Soccer, I need to do really well with Kansas City,” she said. “So I had told [Priestman] that and she had agreed. No hard feelings or anything. It was a weird feeling to turn down going to senior camp, which is also another dream of mine.”
Pickett trained as a fullback while at camp in February, where she also played with the Canadian youth teams. Despite previous experience, the position isn’t her first choice.
“To be honest, I don't really like being fullback just because I don't think I'm doing the best that I can do in that position,” she said. “I think I'm better as a midfielder just because I'm just more comfortable there and I don't feel as comfortable along the line or anything.”
Pickett has also moved around the pitch so far for Kansas City, playing more centrally as well as on the wing. She has said that her favourite position is holding midfielder, as she enjoys facing the field, going on the attack and using her speed and dribbling prowess.
While Pickett sees herself as a playmaker, her coach would also like her to be a little greedier.
“The next part or the evolution of her game right now is going to be to be a little bit more dangerous at the edge of the box,” Williams said. “Instead of just being the player that is looking to create opportunities for others – just to be a little bit more selfish at times.”
With a promising horizon for both club and country, Pickett is soaking in every experience possible.
“I'm still learning just to be grateful for what I have,” she said. “I think the injury has taught me that. Being away from soccer for literally months, it made me realize just how important soccer is to me and everything, but it also made me realize that it's not all of me, which was what I had initially thought when the injury occurred. I'm like, ‘My life is done,’ is truly what I thought. But now, being here in this position, I'm a soccer player, but I'm also a daughter, I'm a friend, and I'm a good person.”