WAYNE, Pa. – When Bakary Soumaré made his Philadelphia Union debut last August against his former team – the Chicago Fire – it was supposed to be the start of something special.
Soumaré would regain the form that had made him an MLS Best XI defender in 2009 before he plied his trade in Europe, and the Union would have a talented center back to slot in alongside All-Star Carlos Valdés for the remainder of the 2012 season.
But it never came close to working out that way. Because of a lingering knee injury, that game vs. the Fire turned out to be the only appearance Soumaré made last year.
“It was very frustrating,” Soumaré said during the first week of the Union’s 2013 training camp. “It’s my first injury since I’ve been a pro, so it was tough mentally. But that’s part of the game. Sometimes there are going to be ups and downs, and this was one of the downs. But I was able to recover. And I’m feeling good and happy to be back and healthy.”
Soumaré, who was signed last June after the Union traded their first-round pick to get his rights, has indeed looked sharp so far this preseason. The 6-foot-4 defender pointed to a regimented offseason plan that helped him overcome the two knee surgeries that spoiled his 2012 season.
“It took a lot of work – a lot, a lot of work,” Soumaré said. “When I left here, me and [Union head trainer Paul Rushing] had a game plan. I went back home to Chicago and I had rehab every day – with a trainer, yoga, pilates. It was a combination of a lot of work. But if that’s what it was going to take to get me back on my feet, that’s what it was going to be.”
Soumaré admitted he was trying to get back on the field toward the end of the last season but when the Union dropped out of the playoff race, the coaches decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Besides, Amobi Okugo had filled in nicely alongside Valdés at center back, making any lineup shakeups not entirely necessary.
The Union still like Okugo in that role but manager John Hackworth said last week that he’d like to play the youngster more in the midfield this season. That leaves Soumaré as the presumptive starter at center back alongside Jeff Parke, who was signed in part because Valdés was loaned to Colombia’s Independiente Santa Fe.
“Certainly having Baky healthy and when Jeff gets here and returns from national team duty, I think we’ll see Amobi first and foremost in the midfield,” Hackworth said. “His versatility is fantastic for us. It gives us a lot of tough questions to ask of our staff but those are the questions that any coach wants to have.”
If Soumaré and Parke start together at center back, it would be a completely different look than last year’s team – but the pairing has the potential to be one of the league’s best. And Soumaré is excited about it.
“I’ve known Jeff because I played against him back with my days in Chicago when he was in New York,” Soumaré said. “He’s a really good player. He has a lot of experience. I’m looking forward to it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.