ST. PETERSBURG — As FC Tampa Bay players and coaches celebrated the team's lone goal in last week's season-opening win over Montreal, Jeremy Christie watched from his seat in the red field box section behind the third-base dugout, an anonymous spectator among the few thousand supporters.
Christie, 27, a New Zealander who was the first player Tampa Bay signed in January 2010 when the club was just starting, exhibited no perceived connection to the team, save for the Tampa Bay logo on his shirt.
That feeling of being an outcast, real or not, has been the most difficult part of Christie's rehab after surgery in February on a labral tear in his left hip — more than the pain of three-times-a-week therapy sessions designed to strengthen his injured hip or the hurt from the surgery itself.
"It's hard when I know they're out there warming up, and I'm sort of sitting in the stands watching," Christie said. " … At the end of last season, obviously with the way the year finished for me, my injuries, I was excited about having an offseason where I could get myself fully fixed and then come back preseason and be buzzing for this year. But obviously it didn't quite turn out that way."
Christie played 11 games a year ago for Tampa Bay, including the first five, before he left to play for New Zealand in the World Cup, where he was a second-half substitute for two group stage games. When he returned from South Africa, Christie was nagged by a groin injury that never really healed, and he played sparingly the rest of the regular season.
"I was never really 100 percent again," Christie said. " … It was frustrating because I was on such a high obviously from the World Cup and the fitness and the form I was in, I just wanted to come back here and really kick on."
During the offseason, he traveled home to New Zealand, where doctors from the national team discovered the labral tear in his hip that was causing the pain in his groin.
"It's actually a good thing that I got it seen when I did because another year or so and it could have done me in," Christie said. "If I rehab it properly, then it'll give me another six or seven years in the game. … I've probably had this (injury) since I was 16 or 17, and once I get it done and get rehabbed, I'm going to feel like I'm 21 again. So (I'm) kind of looking forward to that."
But it's a slow process.
Tampa Bay doesn't expect Christie to start fully practicing until mid summer. The hope is to get the talented center midfielder back for a playoff run should the club qualify.
For now, with his teammates practicing a new style under first-year coach Ricky Hill, Christie trains off to the side. As Tampa Bay perfects one-touch, give-and-go passing, the 5-foot-11, 163-pound Christie balances on one foot with one arm tethered to a large rubber band while Tampa Bay trainer James Faylo tugs at the other end of the band from varying angles.
"I'm putting in the hours," Christie said. "Hopefully once I do come back, it's going to pay off."
He also has provided an extra set of well-trained eyes for Hill and can offer suggestions and give input to the veteran coach during practices.
"He's an experienced player," Hill said. "I respect his knowledge of the game, and I'd be stupid to ignore his knowledge whenever he decides to lend it or give it to me."
When the team hosts Puerto Rico tonight, Christie won't play and won't warm up with the team, and you won't find him on the bench during the game.
He might be Tampa Bay's forgotten man.
Just don't forget about Jeremy Christie.