Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Rowdies midfielder Savage bounces back big from injury

ST. PETERSBURG

Trying to overcome a torn ACL was plenty enough for Keith Savage.

But right when Savage, whose fifth season in a Tampa Bay Rowdies uniform started with that knee injury, was ready to come back this year more maladies popped up.

Then there was a third issue.

"With the quality of players we've brought in, it was no longer about just getting up to speed," said Savage. "I couldn't just get up to normal speed — I had to raise my level."

His perseverance, and yes, his level of play, finally paid off last weekend. Savage got into a regular-season game for the first time since last April.

And he did pretty darn well, sparking the midfield play as the Rowdies happened to score a season-high three goals in blanking Puerto Rico at Al Lang Stadium.

"There were times when it was hard, times I thought this was it, I'm not gonna get back to the level I was at," said Savage, 30.

Some action with reserve side Rowdies 2 helped Savage get his legs back, and his improved training of late had him thinking he might be close to a return. But the aforementioned competition within the Rowdies roster delayed the moment he'd been waiting for.

That would be the phone call coach Stuart Campbell gave Savage last Friday.

"I had an idea I was close, but with a team as deep as we are, and it being a must-win game you never know. When he called I was just excited. I'm so glad the game went the way it did. It was incredible," Savage said.

Not only did he log 88 minutes, Savage covered both ends of the field and completed 26 of his 32 pass attempts.

Campbell, who played alongside Savage in 2012-13 here before transitioning into coach duties, was delighted.

"You can play him anywhere on the pitch and he just fits in," Campbell said. "I can't speak highly enough of him, not just as a player but as a person. As a human being, he's a role model for anyone to look at."

Savage, the son of former USA national player (and Fort Lauderdale Striker) Bruce Savage, grew up in the Panhandle and was a star at Gulf Breeze High. Very few college programs took a liking so he stayed home and amassed 47 goals for the University of West Florida.

"Gulf Breeze was like Clearwater where I live now, while West Florida was more out in the country," he said. "I wasn't sure out of high school that I'd ever go pro. But I was loving being near home and had some success there."

He did get a pro shot, one he called a "wake-up call," with Chivas USA. Drafted 43rd overall in 2008, he lasted less than a year, getting in six games and not scoring any goals. Savage linked on with Portland, which was a second-tier (USL) team at the time, playing 40 games and scoring three times between the 2009-10 seasons.

Then, a chance to return to Florida and the Rowdies. He received 25 starts his first season and has collected 12 goals along with the respect of his peers.

Coming off a goal-less 2014, though, the ACL injury was not exactly the way he wanted to start 2015. He credits his wife, Dawnyele, and now 2-year-old son Bruce, for keeping his spirits up.

"They have been incredible," he said. "And she has done everything possible, from cooking great meals to allowing me to be off my feet, that's not easy with a 2-year-old. And my teammates have been, in particular, unbelievable, encouraging me when it's been tough mentally."

Savage was back alongside those teammates for training camp this spring, even getting into some preseason action.

"I was getting stronger, stronger than I'd ever been really but then for some reason, coming into camp, the rest of my body was unwilling to work," he said. "I had a groin-slash-hip flexor pull that just lingered, I got in a few minutes vs. DC (United) and Montreal but then I'd sit out a couple of weeks at a time. And that set me pretty far behind."

But, he and the Rowdies hope, the wait was all worth it. With 20 full games left in the regular season, Savage has plenty of time to offer.

"Saturday was like playing my first game," he said. "I've had a lot of things that have kept my perspective level. My mentality was to play like it was my last game, with desperation and joy at the same time. If we all do that, we can really turn this season into something special."

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