The big man is back.
Atiba Harris made his long-awaited return to a match situation this week, making the starting lineup for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ preseason encounter with Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders on Monday in Arizona.
Harris, who endured two surgeries to his right knee in 2011, set Camilo up for a goal just 35 seconds into the match.
“It was amazing,” Harris told MLSsoccer.com from Arizona of his return. “Just to be out there with the guys and get into the groove of things.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better, unless I was scoring a goal,” he added. “My confidence went up and it was a good start for me, and hopefully I keep going and keep doing good things for this team and help this organization again.”
Harris’ re-signing this offseason was in some ways lost in the flurry of moves made under new coach Martin Rennie. But if the hulking forward can play as he did in his first five games with the club last year, when he scored two goals and added three assists, it could very well turn out to be just as important as bringing in Lee Young-Pyo, Sébastien Le Toux or re-signing team MVP Camilo.
The big question will remain the health of the 27-year-old’s knee after his meniscus was removed in August, but one day after his first pre-season game Harris felt no ill effects.
“It didn’t have any reaction,” Harris said. “But I still have to maintain it and keep working on my strengthening. I still need to do all the right things to last the whole season this year.”
Harris went through a rigorous offseason training program to build the muscles in his legs, all with aim of supporting the knee joint.
He lined up on Monday on the right side of midfield as opposed his preferred striking position, but insists he’ll play wherever Rennie asks him to – a diplomatic but practical answer given the large number of strikers contending for a first-team spot.
Ultimately, it’s not about where Harris plays, but how he can help his team to success in 2012.
“I just want to contribute,” Harris said. “I want to score goals, help create goals and do what I can do to help this team make the playoffs. And once we make the playoffs, anything can happen. Winning the [Amway Canadian Championship] would also be big, because the champion goes straight into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, so that’s a tournament I want to be a part of.
“I don’t want to just play in the league,” he said. “I want to play in multiple tournaments, so hopefully we can be successful in the Canadian cup as well and go onto the CONCACAF Champions League.”
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.