When Dwayne De Rosario suffered a grade 3 MCL sprain playing for Canada in World Cup qualifying, D.C. United fans had to assume the worst. It was almost precisely a year after an injury to Chris Pontius had robbed United of a vital attacking player, and that injury saw United go from the edge of a playoff spot to also-ran status. It was a bad time for the empire.
The severity of the sprain - just short of a full tear, to put it in layman's terms - came with a recovery period of somewhere between ten to twelve weeks. Given that the injury happened on September 11th, that would have placed the earliest reasonable return for De Ro as taking place on November 20th. In other words, a return for De Ro was going to require United to go all the way to MLS Cup. The captain would not be around to carry the team through the regular season, nor would he be around for the bulk of the playoffs.
United's response has been nothing short of brilliant: Seven games without defeat, including five wins, and our heroes have gone from the very outside edge of the playoffs to 2nd place in the East and 3rd overall in the MLS table. Ben Olsen's decision to emphasize a more defensive style of play has left some fans grumbling, but it was the only realistic way to keep winning games with our supply of goals surely drying up a bit without De Ro.
Now, however, United has received a piece of unexpectedly good news: Friday's MLS injury report has De Ro listed as questionable. Ben Olsen indicated that he wasn't even aware that De Ro was going to return to training, only to find the club's one true superstar player playing a short-sided game among reserves.
For De Ro to even be able to jump into what was likely the least-intense part of training means that he is probably around two full weeks ahead of schedule. It's a huge boost for the club, as is the return of Daniel Woolard (who is listed as probable after months out dealing with concussion symptoms.
All that said, United fans should not raise their expectations too much. De Ro is still said to be lacking some side-to-side mobility, and that means he probably won't play any part of tonight's playoff opener against the New York Red Bulls. In fact, he's probably also going to play no part in the second leg either, as it seems highly unlikely that a player could go from not training for weeks to ready to play with three or four days of short-sided games and keep-away.
Nonetheless, there are tangible benefits. Psychologically, it has to be a boost for the entire DC squad to see De Ro this far along in his recovery. These things may not put balls into the back of the net, but they do matter. Seeing a guy like De Ro - or Woolard, for that matter - coming back will lift the spirits of the rest of the team, and morale goes a long way at crunch time. Contrast the vibe around United with NYRB, where Tim Cahill may be injured out of the blue, Hans Backe left for days to go to Sweden for unknown reasons, and Thierry Henry called out Kenny Cooper for not holding the ball enough after a 3-0 win.
There is also the mind-game element. While NYRB's coaching staff will probably not be fooled into making a game plan for United with De Ro at this point, this development could still serve as a distraction. If De Ro is able to participate in warm-ups tomorrow, it will further this point. I wouldn't be entirely shocked to see some sort of late change of the United subs list (either listing De Ro as available off the bench then pulling him, or vice versa). It's brinksmanship, to be sure, but NYRB can hardly be said to be the strongest group mentally. The fact is that they are flustered more easily than most teams in MLS, and stuff like this could serve to throw them off just a tiny bit.
If United can get past the Red Bulls, the Eastern Conference finals will take place on November 10th and November 17th. De Ro probably won't be able to help us on the field in this round, but he just may be able to come in as a sub in the first leg of that future series (assuming he suffers no setbacks). It's not out of line to wonder if he'll be able to play from the start in the second leg, though obviously United should be 100% focused on today's game only.