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Photo courtesy Utah Royals FC
Utah Royals FC midfielder Mandy Laddish possesses the ball during the team's season-opening win over the Washington Spirit on April 20, 2019 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The game marked Laddish's first appearance since 2016 because of severe hip problems.

SANDY — The substitution that took place in the 79th minute of Utah Royals FC’s season opener last Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium was more than two years in the making.

With URFC holding a 1-0 lead over the Washington Spirit, the lone goal-scorer of the night, Lo’eau LaBonta, subbed off, and on came Mandy Laddish for her first action since the end of the 2016 season, when the URFC franchise was located in Kansas City.

Since 2016, Laddish has dealt with severe problems in her right hip that required two surgeries. She started training with the team more regularly toward the end of last season, and head coach Laura Harvey indicated during the winter that she was healthy. Finally, last Saturday, Laddish knew going into the game that she’d be available as a reserve, although she didn’t know if she’d end up playing.

" It’s been really, really great. I feel like myself again. This is where I want to be more than anywhere. It’s good to finally breathe and just play. "
Mandy Laddish

When Harvey called her to sub on, Laddish said it felt like just another game. It was after the contest, as she had time to think and as teammates embraced her with hugs, that it hit her she was back, and she “was tearing up the whole time.”

“I was hoping I would get in,” she said earlier this week. “I did, and it was the best. That’s the moment you dream of when you first get injured, is getting on the field for the first time. I didn’t know if I would make it, and I finally made it. It’s pretty awesome.”

Laddish, 26 (she’ll be 27 next month), acknowledged there were times during her long absence that she thought her career was over. In that sense, although she wanted so badly to play, she said being unable to do so was a good thing, because it forced her to examine her life outside of the game.

“For me, I realized how much my identity is wrapped up in soccer, which is something that’s going to have to end eventually,” she said. “I think that was really good for me to go through, just so I can start to unravel that and figure out who I am as a person.”

Photo courtesy Utah Royals FC
Utah Royals FC midfielder Mandy Laddish participates in a postgame celebration after the team's season-opening win over the Washington Spirit on April 20, 2019 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The game marked Laddish's first appearance since 2016 because of severe hip problems.

When this year’s preseason began in March, Laddish was excited about the prospect of finally being able to play again, but did feel some uncertainty about how her hip would hold up with full strain on it every day. She reported, however, that, “It’s been really, really great. I feel like myself again. This is where I want to be more than anywhere. It’s good to finally breathe and just play.”

As far as Harvey was concerned Saturday, she put Laddish in the game because she felt she was ready for it, rather than out of any sort of obligation or personal desire to see her play.

“Purely because she’s deserved it, honestly,” Harvey said Wednesday. “It wasn’t just about Mandy and what she’s been through. It was about what she’s done and how she’s performed and how she’s trained, and I think that she deserved that chance, and she took it.”

Harvey said she tried to not make a big deal out of putting Laddish in the game, but was glad the midfielder could log some minutes.

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“I was really happy for her,” Harvey said. “I think that we have to be so careful with her with what she’s been through, but just so happy she could get on that field and show everybody what we’ve been missing.”

For Laddish, the drive to get back stemmed not only from that desire to play again, but also in thinking about how her future self might view these past two years.

“Obviously playing soccer is my dream job and I love it so much, but when it’s taken away from you unexpectedly, it’s soul-crushing,” she said. “I realized that it is truly what I want to do more than anything, and I knew that if I didn’t fight my way back, I would regret it for the rest of my life, so I did it.”