AVE MARIA, Fla. -- To say Steven Kinney was thankful to be in Ave Maria, Fla. the last week-and-a-half would have been an understatement.
That’s because a string of injury setbacks dating back to October 2010 have made this his first visit to the team’s preseason home in the three years they’ve come to Southwest Florida.
“It’s tough to put it in words,” Kinney told Chicago-Fire.com this week. “It was just good to be here with the guys from the start.”
WATCH: Kinney Talks Start vs. Columbus
For Fire fans, the 2010 MLS campaign was mostly a forgettable affair.
There was the menial start to the season from which the club never really recovered. Couple that with the early round U.S. Open Cup defeat in June and an uninspiring group stage exit from SuperLiga that followed the next month.
With a month left in the season, the team’s playoff hopes were on life support.
One bright spot from that otherwise undistinguished year was the emergence of a mostly unknown 22-year-old defender from Elon University. The first player from the school to be invited to the MLS Combine, Kinney would also become the first Phoenix alum to sign with an MLS club after being selected 45th overall by the Fire at the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Though he spent the first half of the campaign as an understudy to the likes of C.J. Brown and Wilman Conde, the Norcross, Ga. native made the most of his first MLS appearance, hitting both posts off set pieces in a 1-0 loss to defending MLS Cup champs Real Salt Lake in early July.
Weeks later, the converted right back would come good, heading home his first professional goal in a 5-1 loss to Monarcas Morelia in a SuperLiga match at Toyota Park.
His growth into his newfound position was evident and he continued to stay dangerous on set pieces, leaving then Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos to select him in 14 of a possible 17 matches following his first appearance.
Though long since eliminated from playoff contention before the last day of the season, there was no doubt the team at least felt well about its newly found right back heading into 2011.
A Fateful Night
Just five days before his 23rd birthday, the Fire led Chivas USA 2-1 in the 58th minute of an otherwise meaningless match at The Home Depot Center.
Kinney went up for a header at the edge of the Fire 18-yard-box and as he came down he said it felt like someone had kicked him. When Fire Athletic Trainer Bo Leonard informed him there had been no one within 10 yards, they both knew it wasn’t good.
The prognosis was a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Less than a week later he had surgery to repair the injury and the recovery timeline was 6-8 months, likely to wipe out a good chunk of what would be his sophomore MLS campaign.
“After such a great end to the year personally, the injury was devastating,” he said.
Though he kept his spirits high in recovery, it would only be the first in a series of injury disappointments.
“Around that six or seven month period I started to get back into it, doing some running and then I came down with a sports hernia.”
With an estimated five-to-six month recovery time, the setback would wash away all hopes of Kinney appearing in 2011.
Just as he began to return from the sports hernia, a posterior tibular injury began flaring up that would keep him out until mid-summer 2012.
“There were three ups and downs where I came so close to getting back and every time something else would happen.”
Though doubts were raised as to whether or not he would ever play again, the thought of retirement never occurred.
“To be honest, it never crossed my mind. I always thought that I was young and there was a reason this had happened and my mentality was always to keep my head to the grindstone and just push through it and eventually it will all work out.”
Kinney didn’t let his time away from playing go to waste, choosing to expand in other areas.
In 2011, he was named the club’s Humanitarian of the Year after spending numerous hours as a volunteer at Children’s Memorial Hospital.
Only able to watch training sessions from the bench, Kinney also grew his overall soccer brain.
“The time off really sucks sitting on the sideline and watching everyone play. One benefit was it allowed me to sit back and study the game more. I could watch someone like Arne [Friedrich] all last year. I could study how someone like him plays the game and really learn from that.
“It wasn’t just sitting on the side and feeling sorry for myself, I became more a student of the game in that time.”
Return to the Field
Nearly two years after the first injury occurred, Kinney would finally return to the field, logging 60 minutes in a reserve match last August against Colorado.
“There was a lot of excitement there for me this morning,” he said following that match. “I woke up thirty minutes before I usually do, pumped and ready to go. I didn’t have nerves, just pure excitement.”
He’d go on to play the full 90 in two of the team’s final three reserve games but just as he was getting back to match fitness, the season ended. While all of his teammates were ready for an offseason break, Kinney was still raring to go.
“I’ve learned that my timing hasn’t been the best,” said the soft-spoken defender. “I’ve dealt with the frustrations and it only made me hungrier to get back to camp this year.”
With the first phase of preseason camp now complete, Kinney hasn’t played the part of someone that’s been away from an MLS game for over two years.
“I feel fresh and overall just really great. Usually when I come back after some weeks off, my back is a little sore but I’m fine now. It’s great to be back among my teammates.”
In Sunday’s preseason opener, he logged 30 minutes as a center back in the second period of the team’s 2-0 win over Florida Gulf Coast University. In perhaps a sign of progress, he paired with Austin Berry and the rest of the starting group in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Columbus.
All throughout camp he’s earned praise from head coach Frank Klopas.
“I’m just excited for Steve,” said the third-year Fire manager. “To know what he’s gone through and see how well he’s doing in camp, you can’t help but feel good for a person that perseveres in that way.
“We’re happy with the progress he’s made and the form that he’s showing.”
While he’s been used as a center back through the first two matches, Klopas insinuated that he feels good enough to potentially use Kinney again out on the right.
For Steve, he just wants to play again.
“I’ll play wherever the coaches see me helping the team out the most. I’m a natural center back but I played a lot on the right in my rookie year. If they want me to play forward, I’ll do my best.
“I’m just happy to be back out there again.”