Team works striker back into mix after his Achilles' injury
The prognosis was grim after Portland Timbers striker Bright Dike ruptured his right Achilles' tendon in a preseason match against the Ventura County Fusion on Feb. 4. Dike was expected to miss six to nine months with the injury to his preferred shooting leg.
Just about everyone wrote off Dike for the 2011 season. He never bought into that story line, however.
'I never quit at things, so I never believed it was over,' Dike says. 'I just kept working hard. When I hear six (months), that tells me I can do that and I can maybe come back even earlier.'
Dike shocked fans and those who follow the Timbers when, little more than five months after the injury, he subbed into Portland's friendly against Club America.
Dike still may not be physically ready to play heavy minutes, but his return already has made an impact. He scored his first career MLS goal in a 3-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 17. He played the final half-hour in last week's 0-0 road tie with the Philadelphia Union. And the 6-1, 220-pounder's play on the Timbers reserve team has put pressure on the first-team strikers.
'He's always going to score goals,' Timbers coach John Spencer says. 'The big question mark right now is his fitness level. I don't think he's anywhere near ready enough to play 90 minutes.
'It takes a long time to come back from that kind of injury when you're such a big guy with a big body. I still think he's running with a little bit of a limp. Probably just confidence in his body. He's a little bit maybe wary of it.'
Still, the progress Dike has made is remarkable. The 24-year-old from Notre Dame underwent a grueling rehab process. He had to relearn everything; how to walk, how to run, how to jump.
'So many things go into it,' he says. 'It's not just your Achilles, it's your whole leg. There was atrophy (in the right leg). It's just a really, really long process, and it's not even over. I'm still having to strengthen it.'
When he returned from the injury, Dike looked more like a hulking linebacker than a soccer player. Putting on mass was not his intention, though.
'I actually tried to not eat very much to make sure I didn't put on weight,' he says. 'What ended up happening was that I almost weighed the same because I had been strengthening my legs, so they would be able to keep up and be ready to hold my body when I was ready to play.'
Playing for the Division-2 Timbers last season, Dike was phenomenal, notching 10 goals. That scoring power is something the Timbers (9-12-5, 32 points) would love to have on the pitch as they make a playoff run. Portland's next game is 8 p.m. Friday at home against the New England Revolution, but at this point the stakes may still be too high to put Dike in for most of a match.
'It's nice to have him back, don't get me wrong,' Spencer says. 'But we're in a part of the season where we can't make mistakes. We can't take chances. And you've got to prove that you're ready to play. We've seen flashes of that in the reserve games. But you've got to be fit enough to run for 90 minutes before we put you on the field of play. We're trying to make playoffs here. We're not trying to get guys fit during games.'
Dike says he believes that before the season is over he can be ready to play as long as the Timbers need him to, at least occasionally.
'That's where we're shooting for: 90 minutes as soon as possible,' he says. 'I'm not going to say that I can do 90 minutes consistently. But I think some games I can do 90 minutes. Some maybe not.'
Many people would already classify Dike's season a success just because he was able to step back onto the pitch. But Dike says he is far from satisfied.
'I really haven't done anything I'm trying to accomplish yet,' he says. 'I have aspirations not only to just play in the league, but to be one of the better players in this league. I want to contribute. I want to be one of the guys who helps this team into the playoffs.'