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All Smiles for Keith Savage in First Start Since ACL Injury

by JAKE NUTTING

“Absolutely”

That was Keith Savage’s quick response when Head Coach Stuart Campbell called him on Friday afternoon to ask if he was ready to make his first appearance for the Rowdies since going down with a torn ACL in the first half of last year’s season opener.

Saturday night’s start in Tampa Bay’s 3-0 beatdown of expansion side Puerto Rico FC in front of an energized home crowd at Al Lang Stadium was the end of a long road to recovery that saw Savage experience a number of starts and stops along the way.

“Oh man, I’ve gotta give God all the glory,” Savage said after walking into the post-game press conference with a warm smile on his face.

“It’s been I feel like a year and a half, if you want to count the [one half last year], and to be back on the field was such a blessing,” he continued. “I had goose bumps for about eight hours before the game, and once I got out there I just felt comfortable. It was a huge crowd and Joe scored an amazing goal, and then Eric scored an amazing goal. So it was a great night, fun to be on the field.”

Savage came into preseason camp this year with the expectation of competing for his starting spot again, but nagging injuries after going through strength and conditioning took him out of the picture by the time the season was ready to kick off. Determined to get back on the field for competitive matches, he kept his head down and worked his way back to fitness in a stint with Tampa Bay’s reserve side, Rowdies 2.

The starting nod from Campbell finally came after the midfielder put forth excellent showings in training over the past few weeks.

“I thought he’s done great,” Campbell said of Savage’s performance on Saturday. “Keith’s obviously a very good footballer. You can play him anywhere on the pitch and he just fits in. It’s been an extremely frustrating time, not just for him but for me as well because I played with Keith and 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.

“Just when we thought we could give him a go he picked up a niggling injury. Nothing too bad, but he’d miss a couple of weeks, then he’d come back in and the same would happen. It would’ve been easy for Keith to get disheartened but he didn’t let it get him down. The past couple of weeks he’s been exceptional and I think that’s a credit to him. He went out and played well tonight.”

The 30-year-old veteran showed little signs of rust moving around the field against Puerto Rico, completing 26 of his 32 pass attempts while playing box-to-box the entire time.

“I feel good,” he said of his output. “I still gave a few balls away. I’m not going to sleep at night because it’s my job to keep the ball, but I think I worked hard and covered good ground for not playing for such a long time. That’s what I have to do in order to help the playmakers go be free.”

With 88 minutes played on Saturday, Savage has already nearly tripled the 33 minutes his injury limited him to last year. Now with his first appearance in a competitive match out the way, Savage’s next goal will be to reach 100 appearances for the Rowdies. Saturday marked his 98th for the club. Another two appearances and Savage will join Frankie Sanfilippo and Takuya Yamada as the only modern era Rowdies to reach the milestone.

Jake Nutting
Writer at Large for The Unused Substitutes and NASL Beat Writer for Empire of Soccer. Fullbacks are people too.