OBETZ, Ohio – It's been a long road for Rich Balchan.
He saw his rookie year end prematurely in August of 2011. He has been sidelined by a series of sports hernia-related injuries – three in all – over the last year. He's come close to returning several times, but hasn't quite made it back to the pitch.
The Columbus Crew defensive midfielder is hoping to put all of that behind him on Sunday in the Reserve League vs. D.C. United, when he's finally expected to set foot on the field in a competitive match.
“I was close last time so we’ll see how the next few days go,” Balchan told MLSsocer.com on Wednesday.
Balchan was referring to the plan to play against the Philadelphia Union reserves on Sept. 30, only to be sidelined two days prior with a thigh strain.
Because the injury was so near the area where he had undergone surgeries in November, February and June, the Crew technical staff decided not to risk possible further damage and he hasn’t had another opportunity to play until this weekend.
“He’s been on the field [training] the last two months,” head coach Robert Warzycha said. “I’m happy we have a reserve game so he can step in and try to play.”
Balchan, who started in 18 of his 19 appearances last season, pulled his groin on July 1, 2011 and has to battle through pain since. He was eventually shut down last August, and Columbus plummeted in the standings thereafter.
Following the first surgery, he thought he would be healthy for the 2012 preseason. But after few weeks he knew something wasn’t right and had another procedure to ease pressure on some of the nerve endings.
Even then, he still had discomfort and a third surgery “took out a huge chunk of scar tissue,” he said.
He was still unsure if he would be okay until a few weeks later.
“A lot of times I can mimic the pain by flexing my groin,” Balchan said. “After the third surgery I was in the back of the locker room at practice doing that but I didn’t feel any pain. I was telling everybody, ‘This one’s the one. They’ve finally got it.’”
Warzycha said Balchan never gave up on the idea of playing this season.
“He’s showing every day that he wants to play,” he said. “His injury was so long and it took so much time, I can see he is trying. His actions on the field show me he wants to be ready.”
There would be a sad irony if Balchan plays Sunday. The match was postponed from Aug. 5, the morning rookie midfielder Kirk Urso died from a congenital heart defect in Columbus while the team was in D.C.
Urso also underwent a sports hernia surgery in June, and as part of their rehabilitation, he and Balchan used to jog together at the Crew’s Obetz training facility following the team’s practices.
If not for Urso’s untimely death, Balchan might not have gotten a chance to play this season, because he was not ready in August and Warzycha is hesitant to field him in a first-team match without testing him in a reserve game.
Sunday is Columbus’ final one.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Balchan said when asked about the situation. “It’s actually very interesting. I don’t know if you would call them coincidences or divine instances. It’s pretty crazy.”