Shane O'Neill, Colorado Rapids (May 11, 2014)
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Colorado Rapids' young mainstay Shane O'Neill set to return from knee injury ahead of schedule

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it appears likely that defender Shane O’Neill’s nearly two-month absence from the pitch has been a major culprit in the Colorado Rapids’ summer freefall down the standings.

But the good news is that the third-year professional is closing in on a return to the Rapids lineup.

After battling a nagging knee injury (O’Neill said on Tuesday that the injury was a sprained MCL in his right knee) that has kept him out of action for nine straight matches, it appears the 21-year-old Homegrown Player stalwart is ready to return to the field in the near future.

It cannot come soon enough; the Rapids have conceded 24 goals in his nine games away from the field (2.67 GAA), going a paltry 1-8-0 without him available. With O'Neill in the lineup this season, Colorado are 6-4-6 with a 1.25 GAA.

“My knee feels pretty good; close to 100 percent, actually,” O’Neill told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “I feel a little bit rusty, obviously, after being out for a while, but I feel good.”

After saying a few weeks ago that he would be pleasantly surprised if O’Neill returned to action at all this season, Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said on Tuesday that all that stands between the US U-20 regular and a return to the lineup is fitness. O’Neill took part in full practice on Tuesday after doing only sprints for much of last week, a promising sign that the Boulder, Colorado, native is nearing his return as the Rapids prepare for Saturday's visit by the Portland Timbers (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

“I don’t know about [O’Neill’s] level of fitness, and I think at this moment the holdback is [his fitness]. Is that going to be an automatic sub, putting him into the game?” Mastroeni rhetorically asked reporters after practice on Tuesday. “We’ll just keep assessing him as we go through the week and make a decision closer to game time [on Saturday].”

Perhaps most interestingly, O’Neill’s return could coincide with veteran English Premier League defender Zat Knight’s debut in Rapids burgundy. Knight, like O’Neill, likely will not play this weekend as he awaits paperwork to finalize his move to Colorado. That could leave the 34-year-old Knight to debut with the Rapids’ prized youngster on Sept. 19 at Real Salt Lake.

“It’s awesome to have [Knight’s] experience, and even yesterday in training playing alongside him, just the stuff you can learn from a player like that, with that kind of experience, is huge,” O’Neill said. “I’m really excited to have him here from a personal standpoint, just to learn as much as possible from a guy who’s played at the highest level for so long. I’m really happy about it.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.

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