Can Kayla Morrison cap off injury comeback with a Matildas call-up?

Gustavsson: What he'd do differently & the world catching up with USWNT (4:22)

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson discusses what he'd change about his tenure if he had the chance, and how the women's football world has closed the gap on the U.S. (4:22)

Kayla Morrison used to be quite a superstitious athlete. But then the Melbourne Victory skipper ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in the first game of the 2021-22 A-League Women season, and that quickly put a stop to all that.

After all, as the defender herself puts it, if none of her fastidiously maintained rituals were able to prevent the injury that wiped out a year of her career, why keep doing them?

So, during the long months of rehabilitation and training that she was forced to undergo in order to get back onto the pitch, she cut it all out. It was a "clean slate." She was coming back, and she was going to be the master of her own domain when she did.

Gone was any kind of plotting about what her next steps might look like and, instead, a focus on the here and now and getting better every day.

She became an ever-present feature on the sidelines of Victory games, serving as a one-part mentor, one-part vibes merchant, and one-part mascot as her teammates secured back-to-back championships; breaking down in tears when her deputy Lia Privitelli brought her up on stage to help lift the trophy.

Across long days in the weight room, she and teammate Maja Markovski would at times each have up to 140kg on their back while Victory head of human performance Justin Crow watched on, seeing "through the bulls---" and tears to keep her going.

In order to avoid falling "into a slump and a hole and just being depressed," the 26-year-old adopted a policy of saying yes to every possible media and ambassadorship opportunity that came her way, giving her a schedule that she says makes her current day-to-day duties look tame in comparison.

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Roles on Network Ten, Victory's internal media and a regular column with the league's media service soon followed. When times got tough, her partner, herself a former footballer, and friends such as former Argentina goalkeeper Gaby Garton were there to pick up the slack.

And when the 2022-23 campaign commenced, the American was there; taking up her position in the heart of Victory defence, her new mindset and approach validated.

At least it was until Dec. 18, when a new milestone in her journey was reached, one that tested her newfound commitment to doing away with attempting to manipulate the whims of the universe: her first game at AAMI Park. The last time she'd played at the venue, she'd not come off under her own power -- that season-ending injury arriving after just 33 minutes into Victory's 5-1, round-one win over Adelaide United.

In the face of this weight of history, the 26-year-old's newfound commitment to scepticism, perhaps understandably, cracked. Her pre-match barefoot walk across the grass added a new dimension.

"I was starting to get really nervous because I hadn't played at AAMI yet," she told ESPN. "Me and Maja always go out on the field with no shoes on before the game and like ground ourselves into the grass. And we went back out, just me and her, and we went right to the spot where I did my knee.

"I apologized to the ground for ripping out its grassroots and then I felt like it was apologising back to me.

"And we both kissed the grass where I got injured, we felt like we had made amends and then we ran back into the team room. And then I went out and I ended up scoring a hat trick, so we said 'wow the field really did forgive me.'"

While the performance-enhancing veracity of planting one on the pitch likely requires more testing, Morrison did indeed ripple the net three times in her return to AAMI Park and her side romped to a comprehensive 5-2 win.

They were the first goals she'd scored in a competitive match since she followed up her own missed penalty to net just 14 minutes prior to her fateful injury 12 months prior; a bright start to a season that had commenced with the world seemingly at her feet only to very suddenly turned sour by her ACL rupture.

After getting a much overdue shot in the ALW largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing clubs from bringing in more high-profile international talent, the defender had been instrumental in helping Victory secure just their second-ever championship in her first season in the competition in 2020-21, one in which she was also voted by her peers as a starter in the PFA's team of the season.

Tapped as Victory's captain for her second campaign, discussions between the California-born University of Kansas alum's representatives and NWSL sides were taking place about a move at the conclusion of the Australian season, and she was rapidly being positioned as one of the ALW's faces.

And then there was the elephant in the room, the one which was able to skirt by, unconfronted, in the wake of the ACL injury: The Matildas.

Morrison's name had increasingly been put wistfully forward as a potential solution to the defensive ailments that had continued to haunt Australia's women under the tenure of Tony Gustavsson which, after experimenting with several younger options to varying degrees of success (not a lot), the Swede ultimately looked to address by luring 37-year-old Aivi Luik out of retirement.

Of course, being born in America, those calls following her breakout season were wistful because Morrison would have needed to secure citizenship before that could happen -- and the injury put paid to any thoughts of Football Australia looking to nudge the process along to fast-track her into the squad.

But after a strong start to 2022-23, alongside two other current Matildas in Alex Chidiac and Elise Kellond-Knight, fans have begun to beat the drums once more. And while the question of citizenship remains, those on the bandwagon might not have to wait long to find out about that.

"With the Matildas, of course, that is such a goal," she said. "It seems like a dream, like it seems like something that isn't reachable.

"But first things first is to get the citizenship. So hopefully at the end of January, or the beginning of February we'll know if that is possibly on track.

"Because I'll have been here five years, January 14, so we'll know more towards the end of January, if [playing for the Matildas is] even possible. And then if it is possible, of course, that is my goal.

"I think it can actually be put through quite quickly."

A Victory official confirmed to ESPN that the club was helping Morrison in her efforts to secure citizenship, and expressed hope that Football Australia, in the fine tradition of sports governing bodies around the globe, would also come to the table and add their weight to the process with further representations. Should they do so, the official was hopeful she could be available as soon as the Matildas' games during the February international window.

Victory boss Jeff Hopkins, who has mentored numerous members of the current Matildas squad across a long coaching career that last season saw him become Australian women's football most successful ever, has little doubt.

"Definitely [she's good enough for the Matildas]. 100%," he told ESPN. "She's improving and she's improving almost day to day. She's so focused now on just making herself as good as she possibly can be.

"The good thing about her is that she's never satisfied with good. She wants better all the time. I think she's been outstanding since she's come back.

"She's a real leader of this group. And players listen to her and the players follow her. That side of things shouldn't be underestimated.

"She's stronger, she's quicker, she's as aggressive if not more aggressive with her defending. She's had the ball at her feet for a long time now and she's improved out of sight with her distribution.

"I don't see why she can't push herself into the frame for some to have a real serious look at her."