Emotions don’t fit in goal. Not on gameday, at least.
So, when OL Reign keeper Michelle Betos returned to the starting lineup Wednesday — marking the comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in May 2019 — she had to leave any imagery of her father, Luke, to eating his typical eggs and ham breakfast and nestling in to watch his daughter play. And possibly a fleeting bummed expression because due to the coronavirus pandemic, family and fans aren’t permitted for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup in Utah.
What Betos couldn’t allow herself to think about is that the morning matchup was her first since Luke’s death last May.
“I’m still working on it,” Betos said of coping during a video conference call with media Sunday. “The one thing about him is that he loved to be with me. He came to all of my games. He drove me to every practice and would sit outside, he didn’t care if I was there for three hours or five hours. He’d just sit in the car and wait for me.”
Betos said the biggest smile she’s seen from her father was when last winter she told him she switched her No. 18 jersey number to his No. 1. Luke was a goalkeeper for Panathinaikos FC in his native Greece, immigrating to New York where Michelle was born in Flushing.
Against the Utah Royals FC on Wednesday, Michelle in her new jersey was her vintage, fearless self in goal. The viewer may have winced at her diving for a shot attempt in the opening half, but medically cleared last winter to play, there was no hesitation in Betos because she already tested the Achilles while training in Montana in June.
Utah peppered Betos with 11 shots, the keeper coming up with five saves to help her side collect the 1-0 win in the tournament. The Bold (1-1-1) play its final preliminary-round match Monday at 9:30 a.m. against Cascadia rival Portland Thorns FC (0-1-2).
The game will stream on CBS All Access from Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City.
“When the (Utah) game ended and the whistle blew and I could walk away from the game, I just remember thinking, ‘My Dad would be so pumped right now,’” Betos said. “Like, I bet he’s so pumped right now. … Yeah, that was emotional.”
Betos is among multiple Reign players to return to play during the tournament from season-ending injuries suffered last year. As she rehabbed after starting four games, the club rotated 31 different players through the starting lineup.
Teammates Taylor Smith (knee) and Jasmyne Spencer (knee) were among the ones to return this summer while Jess Fishlock (lower right leg) and new acquisition Sofia Huerta (right hamstring) were upgraded to be listed as questionable for Monday’s match.
Only Huerta’s injury has improved enough to be available for selection. Fishlock tore her ACL in June 2019 and although she was able to partially participate in training in Montana, Reign coach Farid Benstiti is being cautious with the midfielder.
“I have to manage her more because it’s a long injury,” Benstiti said via videoconference call of the rehabilitation period. “I wish Jess could (play), for sure, like the other players. (Saturday) during training with the team I said that, for me, the best success was not the victory. It was that some players came back in this tournament.”
Helping prepare Betos for her return coincidentally from injury and loss of her father was Reign goalkeeping coach Ljupco Kmetovski. A former player from North Macedonia, Kmetovski lost his father last year.
On the field through rehab, Kmetovski had Betos doing a different, more creative drill daily. Reign minority co-owner Teresa Predmore commented via Twitter seeing Betos with a patch over one eye and trying to deflect tennis balls while kneeling in goal to work on upper-body technique.
Off the field, Kmetovski was a confidant through Betos handling her father’s undisclosed illness. For the last training before her 2020 debut, Kmetovski told Betos, “Tomorrow, my Dad, your Dad, they’re watching.”
“That was really cool,” Betos said of her coach’s sentiment. “Even though it’s not physically the same, emotionally I still feel like he’s still with me in everything I’m doing.”