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Down with injuries for 20 months, Union Academy defender returns to the field

YSC Academy senior Sean Smolyn played last Saturday in a friendly after suffering two ACL injuries that had kept him off the field since June 2017

Sean Smolyn playing against Black Rock FC in a friendly at YSC Sports on February 16, 2019
Matt Ralph

Preseason friendlies rarely carry much weight for teams, but the Philadelphia Union U19 team’s game against Black Rock FC on Saturday was a significant one for a player who has spent the last 20 months working his way back from two ACL tears.

The player, 17-year-old center back Sean Smolyn, returned to the field nearly 20 months to the day he tore his ACL for the first time in a summer friendly against his former team Continental FC.

“I was really nervous going in but just so happy to be able to be back out there,” Smolyn said of Saturday’s game, which ended as a 2-0 win for the Union.

There was a time when the Holland, Pa. resident whose two older brothers both play Division 1 soccer at Saint Francis University wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it back. As devastating as the first ACL injury was, re-injuring the same knee 12 months ago during a rehab exercise when he was so close to returning was the kind of blow some soccer careers don’t recover from.

“During the day I had a doctor’s appointment and that’s when they told me I had torn my ACL again and had to get another surgery,” Smolyn said. “I just burst into tears and it was kind of embarrassing when I got back to school because I didn’t want to tell anyone.”

Coping with serious injuries is tough enough on teenage athletes, but dealing with it as a student at YSC Academy can be both a blessing and a curse. Access to a world renown rehab facility overseen by Bill Knowles was certainly the blessing part for Smolyn, but being an injured soccer player at a school of soccer players made it tough to not feel left out.

“A lot of the conversations about games and practices, I just kind of felt left out,” Smolyn said. “It’s weird because at a normal high school I probably wouldn’t have encountered the same conversations going on at YSC.”

Support from his teammates and his older brothers — CJ Smolyn and Kevin Smolyn — helped him through the process but he also found inspiration from a soccer player from the global stage: AFC Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, who he met during a rehab stint in the summer of 2017 at YSC.

“He had the same injury and if he’s getting back on the field and scoring goals the way he is now, I know with Bill’s training and with Eric (Gorman) and Jess (Gaburo) and all the trainers at YSC that know their stuff I know I’ll be able to get over this hump I’m facing it’s just reassuring to know.”

Smolyn last played a league game for the Union in the 2016-17 season, his first after joining the academy from Continental FC. He hopes to be back on the field for one last friendly this weekend before the Development Academy season resumes on March 2 at PA Classics.

“His demeanor has changed 100 percent that’s for sure,” Sean’s dad Chris Smolyn said. “Not only did we have to get over the first surgery but we had to deal with the re-injury in rehab so it was tough seeing him down about that.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty now in terms of next steps — he graduates from YSC Academy in June but since he hasn’t been playing hasn’t been recruited by college coaches or seen by the Union technical staff — but getting back on the field was a critical first step in his road back.

“I guess the hardest part for us was him watching all his teammates getting signed or committing to college and there was nothing he could do about it until he was healthy,” Chris Smolyn said. “I think that was really good motivation for him.”