BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Finally, Bakary Soumare feels like himself again.
The swelling and soreness in his knee that were consequences of an ill-fated attempt to play through a torn meniscus in January of 2012 have gone away. His recovery time after games and difficult practices has improved after he played just one game in the year after he left his career in Europe behind.
After playing in 21 of 23 games since coming to the Fire in May, Soumare thinks his form and sharpness have taken a turn for the better.
“I recover faster after games,” Soumare told MLSsoccer.com. “My power is back, the strength in my legs is back. When you haven't played in a year, it takes awhile to get the strengths in your legs back. My knee doesn't swell after games, which is much, much better.”
When Chicago brought in the 27-year-old this season, plenty of unknowns came along him.
After leaving Chicago in 2009, the Malian played one full season with French club Boulogne before struggling with injuries. His 16 games in 2010-11 were the most he played over the next three years, and a game against Chicago last August with the Philadelphia Union was his only appearance of the 2012 MLS season before he had follow-up surgery to his original repair from that April.
But Fire coach Frank Klopas knew there was plenty of upside in acquiring the former MLS Best XI center back.
“He's still at his prime,” Klopas said. “He's young and he's an experienced player. I just think that he needed to get games and get his form back, which is sometimes difficult when you miss playing for awhile. All that takes a lot of time. I knew the quality of player that we had, it was just a matter of time with him, getting back to his form. And I know there's a lot more for him to give.”
Things weren't always perfect when he arrived in Chicago, where he's always kept a home. The defense notched just one shutout in his first 13 regular-season games with the club, and he created controversy by running after a New England trainer following a game and criticizing a team employee on Twitter.
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But the Fire have notched two shutouts in their last three games, all wins, and Soumare showed what he can bring offensively when he unleashed a 50-yard long ball in the 32nd minute last week against Toronto that found the feet of Patrick Nyarko to create a scoring opportunity.
“It's all about continuity in the back,” Soumare's center back partner Austin Berry told MLSsoccer.com. “This late in the season, we've played so many games with each other, we're used to each other's tendencies now, so it's a lot easier to play out there.”
With one crucial game left before the playoffs, Sunday at the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET; UniMas), Soumare is becoming his old self. It'll take an offseason for him to completely get his strength back, but for now, Chicago hope his improved form is enough to make a run to the playoffs.
“I feel like I'm getting close to my level,” Soumare said. “Now, I'm back to normal [health-wise]. This past month, I've been feeling a lot, lot better. It's going to be a good offseason to tighten things up and really get all of my strength back. But it's good, I'm feeling good.”