CARSON, Calif. – Since Josh Saunders returned to LA Galaxy training after an extended layoff, something about him seems sharper than ever.
It's not been his reflexes in front of goal or the commands he yells at his teammates, but rather his smile. Previously a bit reserved and often stoic after training, Saunders has been quick to smile, his grin overtaking his face while he talks about what he loves best: playing soccer, and getting paid to do so.
Saunders' start against Portland in a Reserve League game on June 2 was his first action for the club in any capacity since April 21. Saunders could start once more against Portland, this time in a regular-season match, when MLS play resumes this weekend.
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"It felt natural," Saunders said of his return to action. "It felt like what I'm supposed to be doing."
Citing stress, Saunders took a personal leave of absence and abruptly parted ways with LA just before their April 28 match against FC Dallas. Bill Gaudette and Brian Perk split time in the Galaxy goal during that time, but Saunders did not take any steps back while gone.
"I've been fortunate to train while I was away, every day," he said. "There's no days off for me, especially now."
Without Saunders, however, the Galaxy have yet to win a match – they are 0-6-2 in all competitions in that span. While he won't be stepping into a team at the top of its game like he did a year ago, when he replaced an injured Donovan Ricketts for good in June, the team still has the capabilities of doing damage.
“Whenever your team’s not winning, you're always thinking about it," Saunders said. "You’ve got to look at the positives. There’s a lot of guys who are healthy. We are a good group of people, and we know we can win games.”
Whether Saunders takes the reins from Perk and regains the number one spot on Sunday against Portland will be for LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena to decide, but so far the coach likes what he's seen from the player.
"He's done a good job, he's fit, he's mentally right," Arena said. "And obviously playing in the reserve game last weekend helped him."
Having had time away to deal with his personal challenges, Saunders returned with, if not a different outlook, certainly one more focused on enjoying what he loves than he displayed previously.
"Don't take anything for granted," Saunders added. "Life is great and you have to enjoy every day you're out here playing because it's a privilege."