Healthy and fit, Houston Dynamo's Giles Barnes looking to leave mark on MLS
If the Dynamo's scouts want first-hand insights on Toronto FC's sizeable European contingent, Giles Barnes can help. He played alongside Hogan Ephraim in England's junior ranks, was a teammate of Robert Earnshaw at Derby County, faced Irish defender Darren O'Dea and also locked horns with John Bostock, the midfielder on loan from Tottenham Hotspur.
"They're good players, each of them have got different individual qualities," Barnes said.
The Houston forward has not met Ryan Nelsen, Toronto's rookie head coach, but the former defender spent eight years in England so Barnes is familiar with his style.
"I've come across him. I've heard he's got a great work ethos, he knows what he wants from his players, he'll be bringing that English mentality over towards that team and I'm sure they'll be up for the fight," he said.
The Dynamo visit BMO Field on Saturday (3 p.m. CT; Watch on KPRC) seeking their first road win of the season and there is no doubt that Barnes is ready to battle. The 24-year-old joined the Dynamo in August 2012 after leaving England's Doncaster Rovers earlier in the year.
He had not played a first-team game since April and was used sparingly by head coach Dominic Kinnear on his arrival, making one start and six substitute appearances in MLS but scoring a superb goal against FAS in the CONCACAF Champions League.
This year the Englishman has started all eight of the Dynamo's matches. Entering 2013 it was widely expected that Barnes would see most action in midfield, using his playmaking skills to provide chances for others. But a preseason knee operation for offseason acquisition Omar Cummings and an injury to Cam Weaver gave him the chance to start up front alongside Will Bruin.
WATCH: Barnes Man of Match vs. VAN
He has seized the opportunity, scoring headers against the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes and developing a decent understanding with Bruin, who has two goals in his past two games. Barnes believes that completing a full preseason is a key reason for his impressive form.
"To get it under my belt was such a big thing. Last year when I came I'd done nothing. I'd been off for quite a while so [I tried] to get in with the boys from the start and just try and stamp my authority on the team a little bit," he said.
"This is a winning team and to get into the team you have to fight really hard. We've got great players all over the pitch and winners all over the pitch so everyone's always competing every day."
MLS may have lost David Beckham to France over the winter, but it added high-caliber British players in their twenties such as the Dynamo's Andrew Driver and Nigel Reo-Coker, who joined the Whitecaps.
"A lot of people ask, why did I come over here?" Barnes said. "It's answering itself because there are a lot more people coming over from the Premier League and from the [second-tier] Championship who can still play at that level that want to play over here. That says a lot about the league."
Despite the intense summer heat, Barnes is enjoying Houston both on and off the field. He walks his dog in parks near his apartment and appreciates the club's modern facilities.
"They're top-notch. The training ground inside is brilliant, you've got the sports gym next to us as well, you've got great training fields as well. It's all you need," he said. "The stadium's beautiful. At Doncaster we just had, like, a field and we were getting changed in [temporary buildings] and stuff like that. I think people over-glamorize England because they think it's all glitzy … but quite a lot of the places are still quite old-fashioned."
To understand how highly-rated Barnes was as a teenager, you only need look at the name of his surgeon. Barnes made his professional debut for Derby County less than three weeks after his 17th birthday and became a first-team regular the following season, 2006-07, as Derby won promotion to the Premier League.
The Londoner was viewed as a player with the skill to join a top club and perhaps even become an England international, but the 2007-08 campaign was a disaster for Barnes and his team. He struggled for fitness after picking up an ankle injury in the team's final game of the previous season. Derby were relegated from the Premier League with a record-low points tally and Barnes suffered a serious knee ligament injury in February 2008.
Barnes saw a couple of local surgeons but the news was not encouraging. So Derby sent him to Dr Richard Steadman. Born near Dallas and based in Vail, Colorado, Steadman is the world's most famous knee specialist and the go-to surgeon for many of the planet's top athletes. His resume includes the likes of Dan Marino, Martina Navratilova, Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Michael Owen and Alessandro Del Piero.
"He was the only man who could fix it and he did, so I owe him a lot. I can't really put into words what it meant for me, and I've got to thank my club as well for sending me there," Barnes said.
"He was brilliant with me from the minute I got in. I walked into the surgery and he just put his hand on my knee and said 'move it up and down' and he said 'yeah, I can fix it'. I was like, 'wow, that's not the kind of feedback I've been having.' And he said, 'yeah, I'll fix it and you'll be back.'"
When he traveled to Colorado, Barnes' father was with him every step of the way—literally.
"I couldn't walk, if I needed to move anywhere he'd pick me up, put me on his shoulder and take me there. And obviously I'm a big boy so he was quite strong to do it!" he said.
Steadman performed microfracture surgery, a procedure that creates tiny bone fractures, prompting new cartilage to develop.
"The cartilage on the back of your kneecap keeps it smooth. Mine had come off, basically, come away. So the microfracture was meant to give it like a fake cartilage by making a scab and then smoothing the bone over it," Barnes said.
He flew back to England ten days after the operation to begin the long, arduous rehabilitation process. It included nine hours a day on a continuous passive motion machine, which constantly moved his knee through a controlled motion range that increased every couple of weeks. After six months he returned to see Steadman, who was pleased with his progress and told him he did not need another operation.
But 2009 brought fresh injury misery: Barnes partially tore an Achilles tendon on loan at Fulham then fully ruptured it playing for Derby in a pre-season friendly.
"Just a long process when you put it all together, almost two years of not really playing a good amount of games," he said. "But I knew that I was going to be able to play as long as my knee was fine, that was the main thing. And maybe coming out of it a little bit longer maybe helped the knee heal a little bit better as well."
Now fully fit and healthy, the Dynamo are enjoying the results of Steadman's talent and Barnes's determination to overcome his setbacks and realize his potential.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.