Whether you cheer for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team in the World Cup, play for an adult club in Alpharetta, or proudly wear your Atlanta United jersey to work on Monday mornings, you know soccer is a big deal in our area. Athletes of all levels and abilities have made “the beautiful game” one of the region’s most popular sports.
Many of these athletes rely on the Emory Soccer Medicine Program, where a dedicated group of physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers and sports scientists focus on keeping soccer players safe from injury and playing at their highest level.
Orthopaedic surgeon Mathew Pombo, MD, began the program in 2013 and currently acts as its director. A lifelong soccer player, Dr. Pombo is a renowned expert on soccer injury prevention and treatment and serves as a team physician for the U.S. Soccer Federation. Here, he shares his perspective on what sets Emory’s program apart and how it benefits local athletes, parents and coaches who love the game.
What Is the Emory Soccer Medicine Program?
The Soccer Medicine Program offers comprehensive injury prevention and specialty care for soccer players—young children, professional athletes and anyone in between.
Our physicians and physical therapists provide patient care at three Emory locations—Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Johns Creek. And our athletic trainers cover games for many local high schools and local clubs. We provide resources to coaches and parents who want to learn more about injury prevention, treatment and return-to-play guidelines. And we lead research studies to explore new treatments and injury prevention strategies, sometimes presenting our findings at national and international conferences.
Why Are You and Your Team Passionate about Caring for Soccer Players?
All of us have played soccer and follow the sport at the national and international levels. I started playing when I was three years old, and as a teenager, I trained on a U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Team. I played in college until I experienced multiple anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries.
When I came to Emory after my orthopaedic sports medicine and shoulder fellowship, I began putting together a group of specialists who shared my passion for soccer medicine. The Soccer Medicine Program is part of the Emory Sports Medicine Center and the only program of its kind in the region.
Every Soccer Medicine Program team member at Emory has earned a football medicine diploma from the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), which signifies our expertise in soccer injury prevention and treatment. My colleagues and I see a big gap between what elite athletes and recreational players do to avoid injuries. We aim to close that gap and provide the highest level of care possible so local soccer players can enjoy the game, improve their skills and not miss any playing time due to injury.
What Type of Injury Risks Do Soccer Players Face?
A soccer player’s risk of injury varies depending on their age, gender and even the position they play. For example, the number one injury we see in players aged 12 and under is an arm fracture. That’s because these kids haven’t learned how to fall correctly yet. In older kids, you see a lot of lower extremity injuries—ACL tears and ankle sprains—that can keep them out of the game for a long time. College players, who typically play many more games than recreational athletes, need to focus on strength training to avoid wear-and-tear injuries.
Treatment plans vary, too. If I’m treating a 10-year-old with a long bone fracture, I need to protect their growth plates—the area of tissue near the ends of their bones that determine the bone’s future length and shape. If I’m surgically replacing a torn ACL with a graft (tendon), I need to use a different type of graft for a goalie than I would for a halfback or forward.
We Hear a Lot about ACL Injuries in Soccer Players. Are Those Preventable?
The most common ACL injury in soccer is “non-contact.” The injury isn’t caused by a collision with another player but by landing awkwardly after a jump, changing direction suddenly while running, or something similar.
A focused conditioning and warm-up program can help prevent two out of three ACL injuries. Our team offers resources for coaches who want to incorporate these programs into their practices and pre-game routines.
How Do You Help Players Return to the Field After an Injury?
The risk of reinjury is very high for soccer players who are out for two weeks or more. Research suggests they are at higher risk for any injury, including a concussion, a broken bone or an ACL tear. So it’s essential that injured players build up their endurance and strength before returning to play full out.
We focus on a controlled return to play with our injured athletes. Every athlete receives a personalized rehabilitation plan that includes exercise, nutrition and, if needed, sports psychology. During the rehabilitation phase, one of our physicians monitors their progress and guides them on returning to a high fitness level so they can get back to the field safely. Our providers work together to ensure each athlete has the support they need.
What Resources Do You Offer for Coaches?
We partner with coaches at every level of play who are interested in injury prevention and care. Our athletic trainers provide one-on-one education and do group presentations for coaches in the community. They also exchange cell numbers with coaches, so it’s easy to stay in touch. We want to be the first call coaches make when a soccer player goes down with an injury.
Every summer, we host a Soccer Medicine Conference for coaches and soccer club directors here in Atlanta. We give presentations on topics such as “the emergency evaluation of the downed athlete” and “concussion in soccer.” In 2022, we opened the conference to parents and got a great response. You can find several of our presentations on our website.