by JAKE NUTTING
Rowdies midfielder Keith Savage has had a challenging road to recovery since having the rug pulled out from under him a half hour into the team’s season opener last year with a torn ACL.
The 30-year old was forced to shut it down for the remainder of 2015, though he was able to work his way back onto the training field for the final couple months of the season.
With that massive letdown seemingly behind him, Savage came into preseason camp this year eager as ever to earn his spot in the lineup. Things were looking up, as he made it through the arduous strength and conditioning part of the offseason, but he hit an unfortunate snag when persistent injuries started popping up after he picking up minutes in the team’s first preseason matches.
“I had a hip and an upper quad injuries that were nagging and just wouldn’t go away,” Savage said. “We tried to push through it for a while, and then finally we just shut down and let it heal. I got better after that and it’s just been a grind coming back from a ACL injury. My body just wasn’t ready even though I thought it was. Once I started playing in games in the preseason, that’s when the injuries came. I just wasn’t ready for that full on game speed.”
Sitting out the bulk of the preseason was a frustrating but necessary call for Savage to make after already sitting out last year with one of the first serious injuries of his career.
“It was hard for me because I was playing well at that time, so I was frustrated,” he said. “I took a year off and thought maybe my form would drop, but I actually felt I was playing very good soccer. In preseason I got through all the fitness and then bam I’m out. I started losing confidence and I started playing poorly. So now working back into fitness and also working back into form has been crucial for me.”
Reaching his recovery goals would have been far more difficult for Savage in past years with the Rowdies, but the foundation of the team’s reserve squad in the NPSL this uear has opened a new avenue for the veteran. Rather than solely relying on training sessions to work his way back, Savage has been able to pick up competitive minutes with Rowdies 2 the last two weeks. Even at the NPSL level, the opportunity for minutes at full speed, with actual points on the line, has been vital to his recovery.
“[Playing a full match after an extended absence] is kinda a shock to your system and humbling,” he admitted. “It makes you realize the game is completely different from training. I feel more up to speed and more fit now for sure than I did three or four weeks ago.”
Savage has been a boon to the reserve squad in their last two matches as well. Wearing the captain’s armband, he’s played every minute in the midfield and helped set up the game-winning goals in each match.
“I’ve been very happy,” Savage said of the experience. “I’m very surprised at how professional it is. Not only in the environment they’ve created with the facilities, but the players. The players are very good and a lot of them have experience. It’s not like I’m going down playing with a lot of players right out of college. A lot of them have some decent experience. The level’s been high. The pace has been pretty quick.”
Spending time with Rowdies 2 has also provided Savage with an extra benefit. As the most seasoned player on the roster — and someone who wishes to get into coaching when his playing days are done — he relishes the chance to make an impact with younger players still looking to crack into the professional ranks.
“I remember in my rookie year, I was looking up to guys like Jesse Marsch and Jim Curtin,” he recalled. “Those guys are both coaching in MLS now. I watched what good pros they were, how hard they played every single day, and how they took care of themselves, and how they treated the young guys. I will always remember that because it was a shock to my system going from college to pro.
“Hopefully now if [Rowdies 2 guys] want to ask me about it, they can. But really it’s about showing them. Showing them how I train, how I take care of my body. Some of them have asked me questions, but a lot of them have been in professional environments. They’re doing everything they can to get to the next level. I’ll definitely help them to get there if I can.”
Savage’s primary focus, though, remains on getting back into the mix with Tampa Bay’s first team. There’s no set timeline for when that might happen, but he feels as if he’s getting closer and closer every week.
With 97 league appearances for the Rowdies under his belt, Savage has a major milestone to look forward to when he reaches that level again. Only Takuya Yamada and Frankie Sanfilippo have reached 100 appearances for the cub in the modern era. After so many setbacks, though, Savage isn’t even entertaining any discussion on the subject.
“I just want to get to the best form I can get and help the first team in any way I can. Hopefully I can just be ready for that first game. I’m just looking forward to that first game now. I don’t even want to know what number I’m at overall.”
He may choose to push the subject to the side, but supporters are undoubtedly anxious to shower Savage with some much deserved admiration. The Rowdies 2 home opener this past weekend gave them a rare chance to root Savage on after months of inaction. The moment didn’t go unnoticed by Savage.
“It’s so great to play in front of them,”he said. “Our fans are the best. The fact that they’re out there supporting Rowdies 2 is great for all those players, and to go over and clap for them after was a really good feeling. They’re just awesome. They support the first team and now the second team. I love playing in front of them.”