The 2005 season didn't begin as Chris Gbandi had expected. As FC Dallas sped off to start their campaign, the fourth-year fullback was in the passenger's seat -- relegated to the reserve team and waiting for the chance to step into the starting lineup.
"I did a lot of soul searching," Gbandi said of his time on the bench watching the first team.
After not playing a minute in the club's first seven matches this season, Gbandi was given his chance against the Colorado Rapids on May 18 at the Cotton Bowl. He made a solid return to the first team -- and has been there ever since, a fixture at left back for Colin Clarke's side.
"He's done very well; he worked real hard during preseason," the FC Dallas boss said. "Didn't win the starting position straight away, but has persevered and has got his chance and has done very well."
Born in Liberia, Gbandi moved to Houston and went to school there prior to moving on to the University of Connecticut. He spent his collegiate years as part of a successful program that brought him many accolades with the Huskies, named the Big East Rookie of the Year and first team All-Conference honors as a freshman. But the success didn't stop with his first year away from home.
As a sophomore the defensive prowess clicked in as he collecting the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. In his junior year, he had his most celebrated year by leading his team to a national championship and topping the tournament off with the game-winning goal. For his hard work he was named the College Cup's Most Outstanding Defensive Player and Hermann Trophy for being the top male collegiate soccer player of the year.
In his senior year responsibilities increased as he was named the team's co-captain. Gbandi kept his achievements rolling in, winning the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award for an amazing third consecutive year, setting a record in the conference for being named to the first team four years in a row and topping his amazing college career by being named Soccer America College MVP for the last two seasons.
Gbandi was then selected by Dallas as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 MLS SuperDraft. But prior to his being selected, he suffered a torn ACL in his knee -- something the club was aware of.
"He got drafted with a knee injury -- it has taken some time to heal and he has recovered from that," Clarke said. "He is now showing why he was so highly thought of in the draft.
"I think that [being drafted No.1] came with a lot of pressure if I had been healthy. But I was injured my whole first year. I think being drafted added a lot of pressure but obviously couldn't live up to it because I wasn't healthy," said Gbandi. "You take that as a compliment."
After missing his entire rookie season, he had plenty of time for reflection and came back ready for his first professional campaign. But in addition to recovering from the injury, there was another adjustment to be made. After playing as a center back throughout his collegiate career, he was moved to left back in his first playing season in MLS.
"My mindset [during the injury] was just work and try to get your spot back," he said.
In 2003, he made 22 appearances, starting 17, and scored his only professional goal. He remained as regular last season, starting in 20 of his 23 matches, missing two games with an ankle injury.
"Chris is very confident, tactically very smart. He puts himself in good positions -- composed on the ball. He is one of those guys that brings a calm around him and is never really in a panic. He never puts himself in bad situations or puts other players in bad situations," said defender Greg Vanney.
"That is really important when you play in the back. He is also a good passer. I know he didn't start at the beginning but you could see his experience. You could tell he was a good player getting his focus correct and staying healthy and doing all the things he needs to do to be a starter on the team and I think he has done that."
David Wagenfuhr started at left back for FCD as they got off to their hot start, and with the winning way Gbandi couldn't force his way into the team. But after Wagenfuhr suffered a knee injury in a scoreless draw against San Jose, Gbandi stepped into the role -- and has shown an aggressive role in moving up and down the field to support play.
"He likes to move forward and makes things happen. Chris's best asset is being a good defender -- he likes to get forward as well, said Vanney. "He is also a good passer.
"We have had players go down but we have kept our momentum. There is a lot of competition at every position and that is good. But it only makes the team better at the end of the day."
Ron Goode is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.