TUCSON, Ariz. – If he appears against the LA Galaxy on March 4 (7pm PT, FS1) at the start of the 2018 MLS regular season, Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara’s broken metatarsal will have cost him only one missed competitive game.
But, oh, what a game to miss. With the Timbers already hamstrung by injuries, the team’s midfield linchpin was injured early in Portland’s 0-0, first-leg draw at the Houston Dynamo in last season’s 2017 Audi MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinals. Condemned to the sidelines for leg two, Chara saw Portland’s season came to an end, losing 2-1 to the Dynamo at Providence Park.
That finality – and the fact it came so quickly after a first-place, regular-season finish in the Western Conference – gave Chara’s injury a last-straw feel. Fanendo Adi, Sebastián Blanco, and Larrys Mabiala were also unable to start that final game against Houston, but since his arrival in Portland seven years ago, Chara has always felt particularly irreplaceable.
“Sometimes I spend time watching last year’s games, and I feel sad, because we had a very good opportunity to be champions again,” Chara says, when asked about how the 2017 season ended.
It was the first major injury Chara has suffered since signing with Portland in 2011, though the record books are unlikely to remember it. Since joining MLS, Chara has never failed to make at least 28 appearances in a season. This year, with most of his recovery coming during the offseason, Chara should miss almost no competitive time despite what will be a near-four-month ailment.
Those months have been very real for Chara, though. Beyond the disappointment of 2017’s end, Chara’s spent significant time unable to work, train or even consider any activity with a ball. The identity players are deprived of when they aren’t themselves cannot be touched by a mere games-lost number.
“I felt bad, really bad, because I love playing soccer,” Chara says. “Sometimes I feel between sad and bad because I can’t help my teammates on the field. I try to help off the field, to give the team a good mentality. I try to get everybody ready for each game. But for me, it was very hard.”
That difficulty was augmented by a sense of déjà vu, one which, back in November, immediately told Chara his 2017 was over.
“That game against Houston, I felt terrible, because nine years ago, I had the same injury in the other foot,” Chara remembers, recalling his pre-MLS time in Colombia, with Deportes Tolima.
“That memory came back to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, I need to be ready for this, because it’s a long recovery; a long time to wait, to be ready again.’ Unfortunately, it was a difficult time for me.”
Those difficulties were compounded six days later, when the Dynamo ended Portland’s season at Providence Park. They continued over the next few months, as his foot first began to recover, and became more poignant as the Timbers new team began to assemble.
I am very happy to have played my first few minutes of preseason back from the injury. the hard work is paying off. Big thanks to the team of doctors and physical therapists and everyone else involved. #RCTID #PTFC https://t.co/W5sCUN6GZG— Diego Chara (@DiegoChara21) February 22, 2018
As a new coaching staff arrived and different faces began occupying old teammates’ lockers, Chara spent much of his field time on the side, doing physical therapy designed to get his foot back to full strength. The role he’s played off the field, however, as one of the most-tenured players in the team’s locker room, has continued to be vital, particularly with young players like midfielder 19-year old Cristhian Paredes coming into the club.
“I think [my leadership role is] very important,” Chara says, explaining his injury hasn’t prevented him from being part of the group. “Cristhian is coming from the Mexican league. That’s really different than Major League Soccer.
“I think my role with [new players] is to try to explain the rules, or explain the level in the league. Sometimes, we spend time talking about that, and these guys are very good players – talented players. I think they have a very good opportunity to be great players in Major League Soccer.”
As those players have been integrated, Chara’s on-field activity has increased, even if he has still been experiencing issues from his layoff. Although he looked like his normal self in his brief spell in a preseason win against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday, it’s going to take more than a few minutes of game time to get back to normal.
“To be honest, right now, I feel like I need more time,” he said, in the days before his run-out against New York. “Sometimes, my feet still feel a bit sore. I want to make sure the soreness is gone before I’m ready for full training.”
That point came on Feb. 17, when Chara took part in his first live action of the spring. Over the next three days, progress continued, so much so that the first major injury of Chara’s Portland life is starting to fade into the past.
Now, in addition to monitoring his foot, Chara’s recovery is about building back up to 90 minutes fitness. His months without soccer are finally behind him, and while he may not yet be his marauding, relentless self, his preseason’s first action showed he’s not far off.
Soon, we will finally see the return of the real Diego Chara.