Back in March, Houston Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear made a gamble on the player market and five months later, the odds of a pay-off seemed remote.
While ex-Dynamo forward Dominic Oduro had eight goals for the Chicago Fire by Aug. 21, the player who Kinnear received in exchange for the Ghanaian had played just 11 minutes for his new club.
That’s because when striker Calen Carr was acquired by Houston, he was battling concussion symptoms after a ball struck the side of his head during preseason with Chicago. The Dynamo were under the impression that he was three to four weeks away from a return to regular training activities.
But Kinnear stuck with Carr. He knew him from his days in San Jose with the Earthquakes, when Carr was a college player at the University of California - Berkeley. He had a strong feeling that his personality would make for a good fit in the locker if the forward could recover.
“There was an absolute risk because you never know as far as concussions go when a player can come back,” Kinnear said. “We had to wait, but we had our fingers crossed that he would get through this.”
That risk only magnified when three to four weeks turned into several months.
“Nobody really expected my concussion to be as long as it was,” Carr told MLSsoccer.com. “It ended up being a long time.”
Carr’s symptoms were just not going away. But they were not the classic signs of concussion, which typically include headaches and nausea. His concussion was different.
Of 22 symptoms that are tracked, Carr reported only six or seven including sensitivity to light, sensitivity to noise and a feeling of fogginess.
Doctors had concluded that he had an inner ear disturbance caused by the ball striking him on the side of the head. As Dynamo athletic trainer Theron Enns explains, the tubes in the inner ear work a lot like a carpenter’s level. If something’s off, the balance is affected, creating dizziness and difficulties tracking objects.
“The vestibular therapist was having him roll around and do all sorts of weird exercises on a mat — turning and twisting and using special goggles,” Enns said. “It was all meant to retrain his brain to receive the signals, interpret them correctly and know that he was level, balanced and seeing things correctly.”
A team of 10 doctors and therapists – from neurologists, to neuro-ophthalmologists and physical therapists – all worked with Carr for several months.
“I’m sure there were some dark days,” Enns said. “He got traded to a team he didn’t know. He was unable to play and prove himself as soccer player. He was in a new city trying to meet people and get comfortable and was questioning: ‘Is this every going to go away?’ You can see when a guy is struggling and hitting his low lows.”
“There was definitely a little uncertainty,” Houston veteran Brad Davis said. “We all hoped and were praying he was going to come back and you’d see him train for a day and come back and then he’d be like, ‘I can’t do it,’ and I know he had been having a lot of ups and downs. … In the back of your head, you’re saying, ‘Are we going to be able to get this guy back?’”
It took until late July for the symptoms to begin diminishing until finally disappearing. Carr made his first appearance for the Dynamo in the MLS Reserve League in August. The long road took a fairytale twist with a game-winning goal in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia last Sunday.
“I feel great, I feel back to my old self,” Carr said. “For a long time that wasn’t the case. I’m really thankful for feeling good again.”
“He provides something this team and a lot of teams enjoy having, which is pace to get in behind the defense and he showed that a couple of times against Philadelphia,” Kinnear said. “He’s a smart guy. He graduated from Berkeley and so I know he’s no dummy. It’s a point of getting him on the field and adjusted to the guys. But he’s been in MLS for quite a few years and knows these guys from us being in San Jose and has played against a bunch of them, too.”
Carr is now the incumbent starter alongside veteran Brian Ching ahead of Thursday’s second leg battle at Robertson Stadium. He hopes to continue to return the loyalty shown to him by the club.
"They've been stingy on defense all year," Carr said about the Union. "You have to work for everything you get. We did a good job of staying patient [on Sunday night], but when we got our moment to find a gap in between, we did that and we’ll look to do so again [Thursday].
“I’m feeling good now and it’s a credit to the medical staff and organization for giving me the resources and the time to get healthy and now I’m doing my best to help the team.”