When Mike Grella arrived at Columbus Crew SC, it was different than his first days at any of his previous clubs.
For one, the Glen Cove, New York native was playing with only his second Major League Soccer team and his first outside of his home state. Also, for the first time in the 31 year old’s career, he was beginning the season on the sideline while recovering from an injury.
The last time Grella took the field in any game capacity was June 3, 2017. Prior to that, he dealt with an ongoing knee issue that caused him discomfort and made it difficult to run and move like he’s used to.
“It’s hard,” the winger said. “I’m 31 now and never had an injury my entire career. I’ve always been a very healthy guy, I’ve taken really good care of myself and I take that part of the game seriously. So I never had an injury.”
For Grella, who made just eight appearances for the New York Red Bulls in 2017 due to the knee issue, it was a long road to recovery that he hope ended in Columbus with the Black & Gold.
“It sort of started as a bone bruise and led to some cartilage damage and it’s been over a year now,” Grella explained. “So it’s been a difficult one and you’ve got to stay in it mentally.”
But Grella was not alone. If the winger thought his path back to the playing field was tough, it was nothing compared to what Crew SC center back Gaston Sauro had gone through.
While it was approaching a year since Grella last took the field when the 2018 MLS season kicked off in March, Sauro had been out since October 1... of 2016.
Sauro initially injured his knee May 21, 2016 against Toronto FC. After missing 14 games, the defender returned, playing 45 minutes in his first action in over three months. Four 90-minute appearances later and Sauro was back on the sideline and wouldn’t see the field at all in 2017 as he waited for a transplant, hoping to just play soccer once more.
Instead of comparing stories on who had it worse, Grella and Sauro became friends. The two were coming back from similar long-term knee issues and therefore were working together on the sideline while the rest of the team trained in preparation for the season, and then games.
During that time, the two bonded, rarely seen without the other at Crew SC’s training facility.
“I think we push each other and it’s a very hard injury. It helps a lot,” Sauro said of Grella. “And now we we are close too. We spend time together during the week too. We go with our families. He helped me a lot and I’m happy he’s with us and he’s making the progress too.”
When training opened to the media for the final portion of Monday’s session, there was a surprise waiting. With the starters from Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps going through a regeneration session, it was only the reserves on the field, plus two “new” faces.
Grella and Sauro.
For the first time in a long time, these two players were on the field, with a ball working full in a team drill. And they were doing it together.
“I’m very happy,” Sauro said after the session. “My knee is feeling much better than when I was in preseason. I’m getting better every day. I’m making good progress and I’m happy to be with the team now.”
Although the drill did not include the full team, it was a heavy workload. Sauro’s team defended a lone against Grella’s, which had to defend two goals on a small field. Both players were on the ball frequently and each had to cut hard and go into tackles.
If there was any hesitation or lack of trust in either of their knees, it was not apparent on that day.
“I feel a little bit more like myself and all the strength and all the work that we’ve been doing, the patience that they’ve had with me, it’s gotten me to a really good point here,” Grella said.
Now that they are back on the field, it’s about returning to game shape. Head coach Gregg Berhalter, who said from the start of preseason that the team will be cautious with both players, hopes they continue to progress in training and take that next step to play in an exhibition match.
After that, the players can start thinking about returning to the MLS field.
“They’re doing a great job,” Berhalter said of Grella and Sauro on Monday. “They’ve both been working really hard and now it’s about, for them, getting full in training, not limited volume, not limited exercise, full in training and then making the next step, and hopefully that’s in some kind of exhibition game.”
While most fans will remember Sauro’s physical presence at center back for Crew SC over his 18 games from 2015 to 2016, Grella may be less of a known commodity.
Unless the supporters were paying close attention to Red Bull games, they may not know what Grella, who has 16 goals and 13 assists in 73 MLS appearances, can offer the Black & Gold once he’s fully fit and healthy.
“I think I’m technically very good with the ball and I’m good around the goal,” Grella described his play. “I think my whole career I’ve been good around the goal. I don’t need many chances to score. But I think I can add a lot of things. I think I’m good in possession and I think I’m very good out of possession, putting in a shift and defending and battling for the guys. So maybe I can add a little bit of experience and hopefully some goals.”
Back in training with the team, both players can now see the end of a long, winding road that at times over the last year-plus seemed like it would never end. When both Grella and Sauro return, they will do so into crowded position groups and each will have to earn their place on the field.
But neither player cares about that. It may be a few more weeks before they can really return, but to both of them, it’s about getting back out there and playing the sport they love.
“I always believed in it, which is hard to do, but I always believed in it,” Grella said.
“The complications with my knee, it’s a progress so I don’t want to say too much, but I think I’m past it, at least I hope I am and it feels good. It feels really great to be out here, part of the group.”