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It was a ‘dream return’ for Mike Grella on Saturday night

After being out for nearly a year, the winger caps his Crew SC debut with a game-winning goal.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries are never easy for a professional player.

When you make a living by performing on the field, court, whatever arena, you want to be out there performing and not stuck on the sideline.

That was especially true for Columbus Crew SC first-year winger Mike Grella.

Despite playing professional soccer since 2009, Grella managed to go through his career with no major injuries. That was until late in the 2016 Major League Soccer season when he bumped knees while with the New York Red Bulls and began to feel lingering pain.

After attempting to manage and play through that pain, Grella eventually had to shut it down. His last meaningful game of any kind came on June 3, 2017.

“I’ve never had a big injury ever,” he said. “Not until you go through something like this, you don’t really know (how it will go). So it was unfortunate. Someone made contact and I had a piece of cartilage get chipped off and so it was really unfortunate.”

Through the recovery process, Grella’s contract was not picked up by the Red Bulls. The winger ended up with Crew SC — by way of the Colorado Rapids — but the recovery process continued.

After returning to training in early April and playing in his first scrimmage just over a week ago, it was about deciding what was next for Grella.

“It was conversations with him,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It was ‘Hey, where are you at?’ We saw the game against Louisville, and then it was a conversation with him a couple of days ago, and I said, ‘Where you at? What do you think you need? We want to get you back. What is it going to take?’ He said he’s ready.

“I think when you have a 31 year old who’s been around the block, you trust what they say, and he said he was ready and I trusted him.”

Grella made his debut on the Black & Gold’s bench last Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes and in the 65th minute, he checked into the game.

“I can’t thank enough for first Gregg and then Steve (Tashjian) and Brook (Hamilton) and Chris (Shenberger) and all those guys,” he said of making his return. “I can’t think them enough because they took me when I was in a really bad situation and really worked with me the right way to bring me back. The right way, the right timeline.”

After being out nearly a year, and even longer dealing with the knee issue, it would be reasonable to expect Grella to feel a bit rusty in his return or that it might take a bit to get his timing back. According to the winger, he did not have those issues.

And it didn’t look like it either.

Playing on the left wing for Columbus, Grella looked like the player that used to terrorize defenses for New York. He did not hesitate to take on his man or look to get in behind the Earthquakes’ defense.

“I think he did well. I think he gave energy,” Berhalter said of Grella. “If you can imagine what he’s going through, right? The excitement that he’s going through and all the adrenaline that he has and then he gets tired he has to go again. But you saw, he kept pushing and I liked what I saw, definitely.”

A special night for Grella got even better in the 84th minute when, with Crew SC and the Quakes tied at one, an early cross from Pedro Santos slipped by San Jose midfielder Magnus Eriksson and right to the winger inside the penalty box.

Grella took a touch to control the ball, and two more to set himself up, then he fired a shot near post. Goal.

“In the back of my mind, I thought maybe I maybe I could get a goal,” Grella admitted postgame. “I thought I’d play well and do what I can, but I knew, as soon as I crossed the line after such a long injury — many times throughout this period I felt I wouldn’t play ever again. So when I crossed the line to get into the game, I knew that I had already accomplished something really big. So I felt that, why not try to get something else, get a goal or something?”

The goal was big for Grella in his return, but it was also big for his new club. That finish sealed the win for the Black & Gold, something the team had not achieved in the last four matches.

“It was a dream return and a dream come true,” Grella continued. “I’m so pleased.”

For the winger, this moment was a longtime coming.

Although he was technically ruled out for less than a year, Grella said he’s been dealing with the knee issues for close to 17 months, never able to play at the level he was used to.

On Saturday, not only was he able to return to action, but he did so without any of the issues that have hindered him for the last year and a half.

“I was surprised with how good I felt and how, not speaking on my knee any more, how good my body felt and how up to speed I was. I was surprised,” he admitted.

On Saturday night, Grella showcased exactly what Berhalter and his staff hoped for when they brought the winger to Columbus. He demonstrated his ability on the ball and his composure in front of goal coming off the bench and it led to a Crew SC victory.

Now it’s about building on that, adding minutes and potentially working Grella into the starting lineup alongside the Black & Gold’s other attacking options.

But on Saturday night, it was about not only celebrating a win, but the return of a player who has worked hard to make sure he gets back on the field and has moments just like this one.

“When a guy goes through something that he’s been through and they don’t waiver and they stay strong and they keep working every single day, you can’t be more happy for guys like that,” Berhalter said. “And when they get their opportunity, to see them take advantage of their opportunity, is amazing. And this is why I’m proud to be in this business.

“So for Mike, the whole group is extremely proud of him, and I think it’s a testament to him as a person and as an athlete that he’s been out this long and comes back and can make that type of impact.”