SAN JOSE, Calif. – For several weeks now, the San Jose Earthquakes have seen a reminder of what might have been in 2015 roaming along the sidelines during training.
By next month, that sight might represent actual help on the pitch.
Innocent, the Quakes’ biggest offseason signing and their best hope to solve last season’s goalscoring issues, has been working out on his own this month during the club’s training sessions. And as the Nigerian-born Swiss international nears the end of his recovery from May surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, he is aiming to rejoin his teammates before the season ends, rather than simply packing it in and planning for 2016.
“For me, it’s very important,” Innocent told reporters Tuesday. “I want to play more games before the season ends so I can feel really good about next season.”
Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear said he was definitely hoping to see the 26-year-old back on the field at some point during San Jose’s final four games, but only if Innocent is able to play without reservations.
“You don’t want to give charity minutes,” Kinnear said. “You still want to play the game to win the game. … If he’s healthy enough where we think he can help the team on the field, then he’ll be involved. [But] you don’t want to put him in a position where he’s not comfortable stepping on the field, either.”
The injury, which occurred during the Quakes’ 1-1 tie against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 1, was the worst of Innocent’s career, in terms of missed time. It left him disconsolate.
“It was unbelievable,” Innocent said. “I never thought that I was going to get such an injury before. I was thinking that I was too strong for the injury. It just happened. I couldn’t sleep that week. It was very, very terrible news for me. But it’s something that is out of my control. The best I can do is just do what they tell me that I need to do, and to train very well and try to get back stronger.”
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Innocent has stepped up his on-field rehab from jogging to running to sprint work over the course of this month. The last test is full training, which he said could start in one to two weeks. Then, of course, there’s a matter of regaining match speed.
“Sometimes, in the training, the knee tells me to stop,” Innocent said. “But I think I am getting well, very, very well. Every week, I feel more comfortable.”
If Innocent is available as a late-game sub in October, it would give Kinnear a different type of weapon off the bench. Nobody among San Jose’s reserves currently has the kind of speed and on-ball craftiness that Innocent showed in scoring his lone MLS goal to date – dribbling around two Seattle defenders before getting a return pass and leaving US international Brad Evans sprawled on the deck after a final cutback.
That, in turn, might be just the kind of boost the Quakes are looking for in their pursuit of Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and Portland – the three teams sitting just above the Western Conference’s red line.
“If we win three of the four [remaining] games, we may be in the playoffs,” Innocent said. “But it’s going to be very, very difficult.”