TAMPA — In October, while players, coaches and front office personnel from the Rowdies gathered on a platform at Al Lang Stadium and took turns hoisting the NASL championship trophy to celebrate their victory over Minnesota, defender Draymond Washington stood off to the side, propped up by crutches.
Four months earlier, Washington had surgery to repair a medial meniscus tear in his right knee. After rejoining the Rowdies in August and appearing as a substitute in two matches, Washington injured his left knee and had to go under the knife again, this time microfracture surgery to repair a defect that had bone rubbing against bone and caused the Potomac, Md., native a great deal of pain in the joint.
Washington appeared in only six matches (four starts) during the 2012 season, playing a total of 424 minutes before being sidelined for the remainder of the year.
"The crutches were the worst part," Washington said. "Having to get around on crutches was so frustrating. It was hard to celebrate. It's like, 'Did I do anything? Did I really play a part?' "
Slowly, Washington has been working his way back into playing shape. This month he returned to limited training with the team. Over the past two weeks, Washington has become a full participant in practice. Thursday he started and put in a full shift at left back as the Rowdies' reserves scrimmaged Antigua Barracuda FC (USL Pro league) at the Shimberg complex in Tampa.
The Rowdies won 5-1.
"It felt good to get back out there," Washington said. "I'm hungrier now because I've been out for so long. I needed that. I needed the fitness. One more month and I should be ready to go."
The Rowdies are expecting Washington to be fully fit for the start of the NASL fall season, which begins Aug. 3 at San Antonio.
"What he's done in the last 10 days of training has been really, really good," coach Ricky Hill said. "He hasn't looked in any discomfort whatsoever with the knee, which is the main thing, and he's managed to complete all the sessions. … Ultimately, when he's fit, he'll add plenty to our side when needed."
Spring season championship: The NASL spring champion likely will be decided Saturday when Carolina hosts Atlanta. Carolina is alone in first place with 19 points; Atlanta is second with 17.
Carolina can clinch the spring title and earn the right to host the Soccer Bowl in November with a victory. In this season's competition format, the spring champion earns the right to host the fall champion for the NASL title.
Hill said though he doesn't have a preference which team wins the spring championship, the field at Carolina's WakeMed Soccer Park is an immaculate surface worthy of a championship final.
"Any team that gets to the final, even if it's away from home, you look forward to going to (WakeMed Soccer Park) because it's a beautiful surface," he said.
An Atlanta win or tie against Carolina would set up a four-way showdown going into the final week of the season with Carolina, Atlanta, Minnesota and San Antonio having a chance to claim the title.
The Rowdies were eliminated from contention by Carolina's victory over Minnesota last weekend.