One of the most skilled wingers in Major League Soccer made his heroic return on Saturday, swooping in to sweep three points and snap a four-match losing skid. Mike Grella's moment was nearly a year of rehabilitation, three clubs and two cities in the making. His game winner in Crew SC's home victory over the San Jose Earthquakes was a moment of righteousness after a year and a half of doubt.
Grella was always aware of his health while playing, but never had a significant injury in his career. To be a playmaker on the field, his health was the most important factor.
But while with the New York Red Bulls last year, Grella was forced to have surgery on his left knee after playing only eight games due to discomfort from previous knocks. According to Grella, what followed through the next 16-17 months was anything but tranquil.
The 31-year old focused on recovering but the road ahead held twists and turns. In December, Grella was selected by the Colorado Rapids in the 2017 Re-Entry Draft and was immediately traded to Columbus. His rehabilitation continued through preseason and the early stages of the regular season with his new club. In a new city with a new club and new teammates, Grella was isolated in rehab training off to the side during practice and on his own.
Two months into the 2018 regular season, Grella knew it was time to make his comeback. Crew SC hosted San Jose with the match tied in a 1-1 knot. Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter read the moment as needing a spark — a hero on Superhero Night. Columbus made its first substitiution in the 65th minute. Niko Hansen made way for Grella's Black & Gold debut and long-awaited comeback.
"When you have a 31-year-old who’s been around the block," Berhalter said. "You trust what they say (about being ready), and he said he was ready so I trusted him."
The New York native made his statement just 20 minutes later.
HE CAME IN WHEN WE NEEDED HIM & SAVED THE DAY ON SUPERHERO NIGHT! WHO IS WRITING THIS BEAUTIFUL SCRIPT!?— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) April 29, 2018
OMG, @MikeGrella10! What an entrance. You are Superman! #CrewSC | #CLBvSJ pic.twitter.com/U67ReMH8gU
He scored the game winning goal — and the club's 600th home goal — for Columbus. It took him just three touches to find space when seemingly suffocated inside the 18-yard box, cutting to his right after an inch-perfect ball by Pedro Santos.
Grella’s debut performance landed him Acura Man of the Match honors as well as a spot on the bench for MLS’s Team of the Week.
“When I crossed the line to get into the game, I knew that I had already accomplished something really big," said Grella,. "Why not try to get something else, a goal or something? It was a dream return. I’m so blessed.”
Grella acknowledged that the victory over San Jose is just the beginning. He will continue to rehab his injury and work toward being physically and mentally fit to become a leader within Crew SC.
Crew SC returns to MAPFRE Stadium on Wednesday May 9 to host Philadelphia Union at 7:30 p.m. ET.