Almost there: Houston Dynamo forward Calen Carr approaches full match fitness
It's not normally meant as a compliment, but for Calen Carr being called "questionable" was a sign of genuine progress.
The striker was upgraded to that status last Friday on the Dynamo's official injury report after months of being listed as "out" due to the serious knee problem he suffered in last year's MLS Cup.
It was a sign that he is edging towards full fitness and hoping to contribute to Houston's playoff push, though this Saturday's game at BBVA Compass Stadium against Clint Dempsey's Seattle Sounders (8 p.m. CT; CSN Plus) will come too soon for him.
Another positive indicator came during an intra-squad match on Tuesday, Carr's first full contact game action since last December. It followed months of training by himself and in the gym as he rehabilitated after knee surgery. He was on crutches for nearly three months.
Carr gave the Dynamo the lead at the Home Depot Center in MLS Cup on December 1 but suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in his career as he challenged for the ball early in the second half. The Los Angeles Galaxy went on to win, 3-1.
"The last time I got some contact and played in a game and felt like I was competing was MLS Cup final, so I missed that feeling, I missed that day-to-day competitiveness with the team and being around the guys in a different way," he said.
"You can hang around the locker room and feel like you're a part of the group but until you get out there and mix it up, play well, get yelled at, show some emotion ... I think for me it's a good release of a little bit of pent-up frustration for all the hard times that I've gone through in the past seven months.
"For me I also need to just manage my expectations, allow myself time to really get going in training, make mistakes. All in all I think I'm pretty good at that and I've had some experience in injuries and coming back from injuries."
It is two years since the speedy striker returned to training and made his Dynamo debut after suffering a concussion in preseason as a Chicago Fire player that caused him to sit out the first five months of the campaign. Last season he formed an effective partnership up front with Will Bruin and logged career highs in starts and minutes played.
On Tuesday, the Californian was vocal and lively, excited to be back and eager to show the Dynamo what they've been missing. "I've done enough work in the gym and on the side that I have a good base and I should feel confident out there. Now it's just a matter of getting those reps and crossing those hurdles whether they're physical or mental," he said.
It requires mental toughness and dedication to put in endless hours of repetitive work in the gym and cope with the frustration of being sidelined. Then, with a return to normality in sight, it's a different kind of psychological challenge, a balancing act: setting ambitious targets and the highest standards in order to regain a place in the line-up but having the discipline and patience to realize that the body isn't yet able to reach them.
"In a way it's a good thing to not lower your expectations because if you want to get back to the level that you were at you need to expect a lot of yourself," said Carr.
"[But] you have to understand there is a process to get there as far as allowing yourself the chance to make mistakes. For me I think especially early on, it's just trying to play simple, do the easy things well, understand that a lot of the work I'm doing is just about getting fitness, getting touches, surviving and advancing into the next day and making sure that I'm able to continue."
There is no timetable for the 30-year-old's first-team return but whenever he's ready he'll be a valuable option for head coach Dominic Kinnear, especially given the crowded schedule in the closing weeks of the season.
After Saturday's game against Seattle, Houston travel to Trinidad & Tobago to face W Connection in the CONCACAF Champions League. Then comes an away trip to Montreal and a Champions League match at BBVA Compass Stadium against Arabe Unido of Panama. And September is even busier than August, with seven games.
"I think it's going to take a little bit of time still. I obviously need to build my playing fitness up, whether that's from training and then trying to work my way into some sort of game shape, whenever I can do that," said Carr.
"Then there's obviously a congested schedule so I would love to be a part of things as soon as I can. I think some of that's going to come down to how I respond from these trainings as I elevate my workload. Obviously I need to make sure that my knee's responding well. It's always something that we monitor.
"It's also a matter of when the coaches feel like I'm ready and when I look ready, not just when I want to play. If you ask me I'd love to play this weekend but I think the responsible, cautious and intelligent approach is to wait a little bit and try and get a good base of fitness underneath me."
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.