by: JEFFREY BASINGER Bright Dike (left), playing in a 2010 exhibition match, made an early return from injury on Thursday, going 19 minutes in reserve as the Portland Timbers fell 1-0 to Club America.

Bright Dike's season supposedly ended before it began.

In a Feb. 4 preseason match against the Ventura County Fusion, the Portland Timbers striker ruptured his right Achilles' tendon. After surgery, the club said he was likely to miss six to nine months.

'We were so disappointed when we lost him at the start of the year,' coach John Spencer said. 'To see how hard he worked to get a chance at MLS, and then for that to happen, it was bitterly disappointing for him and us.'

But Thursday night against Club America, Dike stepped onto the turf at Jeld-Wen Field in the 71st minute.

'I've been waiting so long to get on that pitch,' he said. 'You can't even describe it with words. It's just very exciting.'

Dike was a non-factor, taking no shots in the Timbers' 1-0 friendly loss.

'I played all right,' he said. 'There are definitely things I can work on. I mean, I haven't been on the field since February. So that's a long time coming. I could have played better. And I'm going to think that, when you lose a game. So just keep pushing, take the positives and move on.'

Dike's pace also was underwhelming. Five months of rust was evident. After playing only 19 minutes, he was still unclear about his fitness level. He said he began to feel more comfortable running the pitch as the minutes ticked away, though.

'It's really weird, because the first little bit, I didn't feel that great,' Dike said. 'It's more (from) coming off the bench and getting warmed up into the game. I felt a lot better as the game went on. I don't think I played long enough to be able to know exactly what my fitness is.'

Dike said he wasn't thinking about the injury as he played.

'I was just excited to be out there and ready to play,' he said.

One moment probably had the Timbers and their fans holding their breath. In the 86th minute, Dike was running for a loose ball. As he reached it, he crashed into Club America midfielder Isaac Acuna. The impact capsized Dike, sending him up in the air before he landed hard on the pitch. Acuna was issued a yellow card for the foul. Dike walked away unscathed.

Dike was happy to experience the physical challenge.

'It was actually exciting,' he said. 'You know coming into the game that the opponent is not going to give you any breaks. So it's really good to see the real test and see what that real experience feels like.'

While Dike did not do anything notable in the match, just stepping out onto the pitch was enough of an accomplishment for one night.

'It's nice to get Bright Dike some minutes, his first minutes of the year,' Spencer said. 'It gave everybody a lift.'

Although most people had written him off for 2011, Dike refused to believe that his season was lost.

'I was just like, I'm going to do whatever in my power I can for that not to happen, because I've been waiting a long time for this season to come,' he said. 'I didn't want to miss it.

'If the doctor tells you maybe 'six to nine,' and then you start doing rehab and they like what you're doing and they're, like, 'four to six', then you're like, 'I'm going for the four.' '

Dike credited the Timbers' training staff for his rapid progress.

'You have great people around you just pushing you every day and giving you good things to work on,' he said. 'They always had things prepared for me. Once I was able to do something, it was always onto the next thing. That was really good.'

Dike did his part, too. One thing that was obvious from the moment he stepped onto the pitch is that he is far more muscular than he was before the injury. Over the last five months, working out became a way of life for him.

'That's pretty much all I do,' he said. 'Not only am I rehabbing the Achilles, but I have to rehab this whole (right) leg. And unfortunately when I was in a boot, I was doing a lot of stuff with my left leg, so that one got even bigger. There's a little bit of disparity there, so you keep working hard to balance it out.'

Over the last month, Dike progressed to the point where he began participating in some drills during training. Owner Merritt Paulson was delighted, tweeting: 'thrilled to see bright d pounding the net during finishing drills w/ team this am. staggering pace of recovery so far.'

Over the last week and a half, Dike began participating in full training sessions.

On Wednesday, Spencer told Dike he might put him into the match.

'He said, 'Bright, you might be getting a couple minutes tomorrow,'' Dike said. 'I was very excited. I've been working hard in practice, and I just have to work harder so I can get in some of the first-team games.'

Dike said he doesn't know how long it will take him to work his way into MLS minutes.

'It's one of those things you take day by day,' he said.

Spencer said he is cautious of calling Dike into extended action too soon and risking another injury.

'When you come off a long-term injury, if you push guys too quick, you start to get muscle injuries, because they haven't worked as hard as you do in a game,' the coach said.

For sure, though, if Dike is called upon in Sunday's 1 p.m. home match against the Seattle Sounders, he will be ready to seize the moment. After all, since his season was never supposed to happen, he is playing with house money.

'I will gladly welcome the task if (Spencer) brings it upon me,' he said.

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