BEAVERTON, Ore. – It's been an arduous 14-month journey back from injury for Ben Zemanski.
In the 23rd minute of a February 2015 preseason match against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Portland Timbers midfielder stretched out his right leg to try and win the ball off the foot of the Whitecaps' Pedro Morales.
It was a routine play, the kind of play that Zemanski had done hundreds if not thousands of times before in his soccer career. That time, though, something went wrong.
“I knew it immediately,” Zemanski recalls of that moment. “I knew it was a pain I hadn't felt before and I knew it was something bad in my knee. Sure enough, we got the scan and it was a [torn] ACL.”
The injury proved a massive blow to Zemanski, who had solidified his place in coach Caleb Porter's midfield rotation with exceptional central midfield play throughout the second half of the 2014 season. He had hoped to build off of those performances and enter the next stage of his career in 2015.
One week after the Vancouver game, Zemanski had a successful operation to repair the torn ligaments in his knee, but his 2015 season was over before it had even begun.
All of the hard work required to get him back on the field, Zemanski quickly would learn, was only just beginning.
Team athletic trainers Nik Wald and Nick Milonas sat down with Zemanski and mapped out a plan for his rehabilitation. It wasn't going to be easy, Zemanski knew, but he had always prided himself on his work ethic and focusing on the process kept up his spirits.
That entire rehabilitation process, Zemanski now readily admits, was one of the biggest challenges of his soccer career. Wald and Milonas constantly tested his limits, making him push far past the point of exhaustion and what he thought he was initially capable of.
“I think we all knew going in that whatever I was going to put in was what I was going to get out,” Zemanski says. “I knew that I needed to do everything that [Wald and Milonas] gave me and Milonas doesn't shy away from pushing you until you can't go anymore. It was great to have that guy.”
Through every stage of his recovery process, Zemanski could only focus on a single goal: get back on the field in time for the 2016 regular season.
“To feel myself getting fitter and stronger and feeling that work pay off, I think it was huge,” he says.
Leading up to his 2016 regular season return, Zemanski finally got back on the pitch during the Timbers' preseason tournaments in Tuscon and Portland. He felt sharp enough in those matches that by the first few weeks of the season, he felt ready to fight for a spot in the line-up. However, a slight abductor strain pushed Zemanski’s return slightly.
Finally, on May 1, nearly 15 months after his initial ACL injury, Zemanki walked up to the touchline to replace forward Darren Mattocks in the 55th minute of the team's 2-1 victory over Toronto FC. It marked his first appearance for the team since the final game of the 2014 season.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” he says. “It was a long time coming – after the preseason games, [I was] hesitant maybe [about] finally being back on the field...But I was through that and I was feeling good. To finally step back on to the field in a regular season game – it was a great feeling.
“More importantly,” the midfielder adds, “it was great to get the three points in that game.”