Interviews

American Joe Gyau excited for second chance at soccer after injury

USA TODAY Sports

Joe Gyau is nearing match fitness at Dortmund, and Jurgen Klinsmann has kept in touch. Paul Tenorio catches up with the talented U.S. international:

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The memory of the injury played on loop for U.S. national team midfielder Joe Gyau when he first stepped back on the training field with Borussia Dortmund this spring.

He remembered it all. How he cut. What the injury felt like. The pain. The diagnosis. The crutches. Mostly the mental anguish of waiting to come back. Gyau didn’t want to be back on his couch again, unable to put pressure on his leg, binge-watching his way through Netflix documentaries and “Orange is the New Black” and, when he started to run out of new shows, “Pretty Little Liars.”

Then, a few weeks ago, it happened.

Gyau sprinted and cut, he got tackled and broke free from the challenge. It wasn’t until the sequence was over and the ball was off his foot that Gyau realized what he had just done.

“Oh snap,” he thought. “Everything is fine.”

It was the moment Gyau said he realized he was truly on a path back to playing first-team soccer and nearing the end of more than a year of rehabilitation. And it’s why Gyau said his teammates had to deal with his World Cup-winning celebrations after scoring goals in short-sided training games.

“That’s when I was able to take off,” Gyau told FourFourTwo. “After the play you think, ‘OK, it’s going.’ And that’s how confidence builds. You keep doing it and doing it and doing it. That’s key. You’ve got to take things day by day. You can’t dwell on certain things. Once you pass the hurdle, it’s on to the next one. You can’t think about it again. Keep moving forward.”

Gyau, who turned 24 on Friday, started back in full-contact training with Dortmund’s second team four weeks ago. He said he started feeling 100-percent about two weeks ago and believes he is nearing his first game action since Dec. 6, 2014. It will be a massive moment for the winger from Washington, D.C., who was breaking in with the U.S. senior national team and on the bubble with Dortmund’s first team when he first injured his knee.

Gyau was diagnosed with a bone bruise and underwent a small procedure to clear out some loose cartilage. Soon after that scope, however, Gyau’s problems got worse. Doctors discovered a piece of cartilage had “fallen off my knee,” Gyau said. He had ACI surgery – a two-part procedure that involves cartilage cell implantation – and was told he would be out a minimum of nine months. Gyau remembers the doctors insinuating that he may never be able to return to the player he was before.

The timeframe put Gyau in what he described as a state of shock. He had never before had a major injury. The timing could not have been worse. Gyau said he leaned on his family, especially his father, Phillip Gyau, who coaches Howard University’s men’s team and has six caps in the U.S., for support.

Gyau split his rehabilitation between Dortmund and Munich, where he would travel for about six weeks at a time for treatment. It was there in March that he met up with fellow U.S. national teamers Terrence Boyd and Josh Gatt. That meet-up helped Gyau regain some positivity, he said.

Gyau said he was also encouraged by the support of Dortmund, which extended his contract despite the injury, as well as U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who checked up on Gyau regularly both by phone and via sending people to see Gyau personally.

“[Klinsmann] does a lot of things a lot of coaches would not be doing,” Gyau said. “And not just for me, he does it for all the guys. I’m very appreciative of that. And the same goes for Dortmund. … They could have left me high and dry and I would’ve been stuck doing my rehab on my own. That’s what motivates me. Those things wouldn’t happen if people didn’t think I was good, that I could succeed at this level.”

The on-field confidence has been coming back in the last couple weeks, Gyau said. His touch is back. So is the blazing speed that made him such a danger on the wings both on the club and international level. His goal is to force his way back into first-team soccer, and back into Klinsmann’s plans with the national team.

Gyau has also been motivated by the success of his Dortmund teammate, 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, who has been playing for the first team in Germany and recently earned a starting job with the U.S.

“It’s a testament to his hard work,” Gyau said. “He deserves what he’s getting. I’m excited to see what the future has in store because I’m back and feeling good and mentally I’m definitely stronger than I was before. Seeing Christian do well is motivation to get back into a high level of football and do my thing.”

A lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to come back and play high-level football. That’s not even my goal to prove people wrong. I knew I’d come back. My goal is just to come back and find my way in the soccer world and reach my full potential. Everything else will come.”

- Joe Gyau

Gyau’s voice got louder with excitement when he talked about finally stepping back on the field for a game. It’s the final benchmark to hit, and when he runs on to the pitch for the first time he will no doubt think back to those tough days when he was stuck on the couch.

Doubt tried to creep in during those most difficult days, Gyau recalled, but he was determined not to let it overwhelm his comeback.

“A lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to come back and play high-level football,” Gyau said. “That’s not even my goal to prove people wrong. I knew I’d come back. My goal is just to come back and find my way in the soccer world and reach my full potential. Everything else will come.”

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