ST. PETERSBURG — On July 10, Diego Restrepo stepped onto the Tampa Bay Rowdies' Walter Fuller training field to participate in his first practice drill since tearing the Achilles tendon in his left foot less than five months prior.
Before he began, Restrepo's teammates and coaches stopped activity, turned their attention toward the 26-year-old goalkeeper and applauded.
The spontaneous encouragement was as much a reaction to Restrepo's dedication and tireless work to recover from an injury that probably should have ended his 2014 season as it was delight in seeing one of the team's superstars from 2013 return.
The moment was not lost on Restrepo.
"It felt great because it was like all I did last year was not forgotten," he said. "It's a good feeling to know your teammates have your back in that sense."
What Restrepo did last year was cement himself as the Rowdies' starting goalkeeper by Week 4 of the season, taking the job away from holdover Andrew Fontein a month after arriving from Venezuelan club Deportivo Tachira.
Restrepo made 23 league starts and 26 across all competitions for the Rowdies. He was a seven-time selection to the NASL team of the week and produced four shutouts. Against MLS's Seattle Sounders FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, his penalty kick save of Nigeria national team member Obafemi Martins secured a 1-0 upset victory.
"He was great for us last year," Rowdies captain and defender Frankie Sanfilippo said.
The 2014 season was supposed to be when Restrepo continued his career ascension by establishing himself as the top goalie in the NASL and perhaps attracting the attention of an MLS side.
Those plans changed early in preseason training on Feb. 25 (Restrepo's birthday) when he crumpled to the grass on an innocuous play. A day later, Restrepo was in surgery, his season in jeopardy.
"I knew right away what it was because a couple weeks before it happened, I was watching a Colombian league game — it was Millonarios against somebody — and the Millonarios goalie had a ball played back to him and he just fell to the ground," Restrepo said. "That play came to my mind right away."
The typical prognosis for an Achilles tear is 8-12 months of rehab. Restrepo was given the all clear from his doctors five months after surgery. He resumed full training two weeks ago and has been making strides each day.
"Diego's hard work has been rewarded through a quick recovery," coach Ricky Hill said. "He doesn't want to sit idly. He wants to be out here. He wants to be playing. I was always hoping he would be available to a degree towards the back end of the season. This recovery is a lot quicker than I thought it would take."
Now, the challenge for Restrepo is regaining his match fitness.
"It's more about being fit for 90 minutes," he said. "(Tuesday), I did 45 minutes of 15-minute interval games, and two weeks ago I would not have lasted one game. Now, I'm lasting three games. Every day is better and better. I think it's a matter of days when I'm fully fit for 90 minutes."
In an effort to minimize Restrepo's loss, the Rowdies signed former Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who has entrenched himself as the starter. Playing time might be hard to come by with Pickens doing a solid job, but the key, Restrepo said, is to remain patient.
"I've just got to stay positive and play my best every day, play every day like a final to make it hard on Coach and wait for the opportunity to come," he said. "When it comes, I'm not going to let it go."