SMALL MEDIA + THUMB + EMBED: Gaston Sauro - Columbus Crew SC - training during 2018 preseason in Hawaii

There were plenty of times during his seemingly interminable recovery that Gaston Sauro thought he’d never again be able to do what he loves.

Doctors only gave the Columbus Crew SC defender a 50-50 shot of ever returning to the field as he prepared to go under the knife last spring for an experimental surgery that they hoped would repair a torn PCL and damaged cartilage in his left knee.

After he came out of the operation, the 28-year-old Argentine felt he was done. After an infection forced another painful surgery a few months later, he figured he was finished. And after he was sidelined again due to persistent knee pain following his return to full training this preseason, he worried it had all ended.

On Sunday, 19 months after last appearing in an MLS match, he put those fears to bed.

Sauro made his long-awaited return to the field in Columbus’ scoreless draw at Sporting Kansas City over the weekend, coming off the bench and playing the final 13 minutes to help 10-man Crew SC earn a road point. It was an emotional moment for the center back, who showed flashes of his talent while helping Columbus to their appearance in the 2015 MLS Cup final but only appeared in 17 regular season matches in his first two-and-a-half years with Crew SC.

“Knowing that maybe I would never come back and arriving at this point after one year and eight months, I was just so happy and so excited,” Sauro told over the phone on Wednesday.

He certainly had every right to be. It’s been a nightmare couple of years for Sauro, who first injured his PCL in May 2016. On the advice of a doctor, he chose not to have surgery at that time, instead immobilizing his leg for three months before returning to the field in September. He made five appearances that fall, but he wasn’t right. After the fifth match, a 3-0 win against Chicago on Oct. 1, he was in so much pain he could barely walk. He went in for another MRI, which revealed new cartilage damage in addition to his torn PCL. Surgery was no longer optional – it was a necessity.

Unfortunately for Sauro, the procedure was anything but straightforward. The operation required a cartilage transplant. Doctors thought they’d be able to find a donor in about a month. It took above five, pushing back his surgery to last spring and delaying his eventual recovery by nearly a third of a year.

“I felt so sad,” said Sauro. “They told me at the beginning, maybe I would be waiting one month to do the surgery and the time passed one month, then two months, then three months and the donor never arrived. I was working here at home, I was cleaning up the house [to stay busy], I was so nervous, just waiting and I was so scared because I think it’s over for me.”

Things didn’t get much smoother after he finally had the operation. Sauro, who was put on the 2017 season-ending injury list last March, developed an infection in his knee following the initial operation. He had to undergo another surgery in which doctors removed a screw from his leg in June.  

After recovering from the second operation, he was able to resume his rehab, doing individual work in the gym and on anti-gravity treadmills last fall. While he was progressing physically, his status in Columbus became a bit uncertain following the 2017 season. According to the MLS Players’ Union, he made a base salary of $585,000 last year, well over the league’s maximum budget charge. That wasn’t a palatable number for Crew SC in 2018, and the club declined his contract option for this year in December.

That created some doubt about whether Sauro would return to Ohio, but, according to comments made by head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter in preseason, the plan was always to bring him back on a new deal. Sauro agreed to a significantly cheaper contract in January and returned to full training for the first time when preseason began.

That was a positive step, but, once more, the good feelings didn’t last. After three weeks of training, Sauro was shut down again due to pain in his knee. It was tough to handle. After rehabbing for so long without knowing if he’d ever return, Sauro finally felt certain during the first few days of preseason that he’d eventually get back on the field. For him, the setback brought old doubts back to the fore.

Thankfully for Sauro, he responded well to treatment and was able to return to training in the beginning of April. He said he’s been pain-free for nearly a month now and is naturally thrilled to be back on the field. The next step in his progression is to get to 90-minute fitness, something he hopes to work toward with a possible appearance on Saturday against Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET | Full TV & streaming info) and in next Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match against the Fire.

He no longer needs to worry about his career being over. Now, finally feeling like he’s 100 percent again, Sauro just needs to find a way to start anew.

“Knowing that maybe I would never come back again, it was very tough,” he said. “I was getting support from my wife and my teammates, but it was very hard, very hard. That’s why now I was so excited to come play again. Just to go to the field and do what I love.”