Lewis Neal’s name will forever live in D.C. United lore.
Playing his first season in MLS last year, the English midfielder scored a stoppage time goal against the Columbus Crew in front of a raucous crowd at RFK Stadium to clinch United’s first playoff berth in five seasons.
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His experience playing against Columbus at RFK this season was about as far from matching that ecstasy as one can get.
Neal, who played 18 matches in 2012 with seven starts, has logged only 20 minutes in 2013 – in one fateful March 23 match. After having offseason sports hernia surgery in Germany, Neal felt well enough to sub on in that game. Still not at 100 percent, however, Neal then badly injured his right groin during his 20-minute appearance. His pelvis and pubic bone badly swelled. He could barely walk for roughly three weeks after that.
“It was a pretty worrying, scary time,” Neal said.
After the injury didn’t get better, Neal traveled to St. Louis where he received a mesh implant to repair a small tear below the hernia site as well as a groin release surgery. In a season where nagging injuries have been far too much of a story line for United, Neal’s has perhaps been the most trying.
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“In terms of my groin, I think it’s getting pretty much there,” Neal said. “You have tweaks here and there. I guess it’s never going to be as it was, but as long as it’s good enough to do what I need to do to be able to play and train every day, that’s the main thing and I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”
At Tuesday’s training session, the 32-year-old Neal was calm and decisive on the ball in a short-field scrimmage and is working on regaining the fitness that’s naturally lost when you miss 19 consecutive matches.
“He’s been out a while, so it’s going to take him a bit to get his lungs back,” Olsen said. “He’s a guy who never misses a beat with the soccer. He just gets it. He’s never going to lose that end of it, he just needs to get his fitness.”
With United’s playoffs hopes dashed, there’s a chance Neal could see playing time down the stretch if he returns to form before season’s end. It would be a welcome sight for a club that’s dealt with an abnormal amount of bothersome injuries during a woeful campaign.
“It’s been a very, very frustrating few months,” Neal said. “Not being able to contribute in any way has been tough, but fingers crossed, hopefully it’s behind me now and I’m just trying to look forward and get my fitness back and get some minutes out there at some stage.
“Obviously the staff have been great and very patient, but at the end of the day they want their full squad together to be ready for a particular game. It’s been tough on their part as well, but I’m just looking forward to getting back out there with the guys.”