Crew SC's Mike Grella confident his "best version" will emerge in Columbus

Mike Grella - close-up - preseason 2018 overlay

LEWIS CENTER, Ohio – Mike Grella hasn’t played in a competitive soccer match for nearly eight months, and says he’s as hungry to make an impact as he’s ever been as he begins his Columbus Crew SC career.

Columbus acquired Grella in December through a trade with the Colorado Rapids, who selected the former New York Red Bulls winger in the 2017 Re-Entry Draft. The 31-year-old arrived in Columbus at the tail end of a period of rehabilitation for a left knee injury that required surgery last July.

“It’s like hell on earth, pretty much,” Grella said of his injury and rehabilitation at Columbus’ first open training of the year last week. “Seriously, I’ve never had an injury my entire career. So dealing with an injury, I know mentally is a huge aspect of it, but I like to think that mentally, I’m pretty solid. It’s been tough.

“You go through ups and downs and you need to try to stay level-headed. I want to be back six months ago…so you’ve got to sort of commit to the process and be confident and believe in yourself and keep heading in the right direction.”

Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter sees Grella as being in a similar position to center back Gaston Sauro, who is returning from a career-threatening knee injury from 2016. Berhalter said neither player will be rushed, making both bonuses when they do return.

“[Grella] is in a similar situation to Gaston where we’re going to work him back as safely as possible,” Berhalter said. “We’re not rushed to get him back. The important thing is that he does get healthy and he’s able to perform, because I think he’s got a good future here.”

In the early days of his Columbus tenure, Grella said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” with how he’s fit into his surroundings.

He said he “envied the way they played” when watching Columbus in the past, and felt like he was a perfect fit for their system, especially when Berhalter told him, “we value the ball.”

“Those were the best words I’ve ever heard,” he said. “To value the ball, you need to work hard, which is something I’ve understood in my career for a long time now. You need to work hard and be tough and earn the right to play. To be at a club where they want to play when they earn that right is really exciting to me.”

Berhalter seemed to echo that compliment, and said he thinks Grella, who had 16 goals and 13 assists in his first two seasons in New York before suffering his injury early last year, is “a great player.”

“He’s always given us a ton of problems when we played against him,” Berhalter said. “But I’ve been impressed with how smart of a soccer player he is. I think he’ll fit into our game really nicely.”

Grella said the next month of rehabbing and getting to know his teammates will be “super critical” to his return. And when that return does come, he said, he’ll be readier than ever.

“When I do get back to fit, I don’t think I’ll ever be in a better position,” he said. “I think it will be the best version of myself that I’ve seen play professionally.”