Cruelty and possibility are intertwined in soccer, because one player’s misfortune invariably represents another’s opportunity.
As the Dynamo seek to come to terms with the shock news of a season-ending knee injury suffered by on-loan winger Tony Cascio, a looming trio of fixtures in quick succession means that sympathy for his plight must be followed by an urgent examination of how the team will adjust to the sudden loss of a promising attacker.
One of the options is outside midfielder Brian Ownby, and the fact that he is in the conversation shows how rapidly scenarios can shift in this sport. The 23-year-old was sent on loan to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of USL PRO on April 3 but was recalled by the Dynamo three weeks later for their game against the New York Red Bulls.
He did not feature at Red Bull Arena but came off the substitutes’ bench for the final eleven minutes of last Sunday’s 1-1 tie with the Portland Timbers at BBVA Compass Stadium. With Cascio now out of the frame, it’s possible that head coach Dominic Kinnear will deploy Ownby more frequently than had seemed likely just a few days ago.
The Dynamo are away to Chivas USA on Saturday (9:30 p.m. CT, CSN) and then return for home matches against the Columbus Crew next Wednesday and Real Salt Lake four days later. It’s a stretch that’s sure to test the stamina of a roster that was already below full strength before it emerged this week that Cascio had undergone surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
As sad as he is for his teammate, Ownby knows that a window has opened to possibly secure some much-coveted playing time with the first-team, and sooner than he might have expected. Houston may also lose Brad Davis and Boniek García for several weeks if they are named to their countries’ World Cup squads.
“It always sucks when one of the players goes down, you never want anyone to get that kind of injury, but I’ve got to look at it as an opportunity for me now. It sucks, I pray for him, but now hopefully I can get a chance to come in and perform. We never know who’s going to be gone or hurt, the World Cup’s coming up, so I hope to be out here every day working hard with the guys,” Ownby told HoustonDynamo.com after training on Thursday.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys,” said Kinnear, who said he was saddened by the bad luck experienced by “a good guy” and a talented player. Each year he reminds his squad that the nature of this physically-demanding sport, the pressures of the fixture list and international call-ups means that good things will eventually come to those who wait.
“Always go back to that meeting we have in preseason: you’re going to get your chance to play,” Kinnear said. “If people don’t believe me, hopefully they do now. For someone like Brian he has to look at this and say, ‘this is a great opportunity for me to get some minutes’. We have three games in a week again this upcoming week so if they’re not ready and looking hungry to seize the opportunity they’re being a little bit blind to it—which I don’t think they are.”
Ownby has logged 32 minutes over three MLS matches this season, already matching his appearance tally from 2013. In 2012, his rookie year, the Supplemental Draft first-round pick out of the University of Virginia made seven appearances off the bench.
While he awaits his first Dynamo MLS start, Ownby has seen plenty of action at a lower level. He spent a large part of last year on loan at the Richmond Kickers, notching seven goals and six assists in 19 appearances and helping them to the USL PRO regular-season title.
“I’ve got Boniek and Brad in front of me, two good players, so last year I went on loan to Richmond and I think it helped me out with my confidence, made me a better player. I came back and started getting some time with the first team. It sucks that it ended early because I hurt my knee but I thought that was a good step towards becoming a better player,” he said.
“This year I’ve been using that experience again to become a better player then come back and contribute.” Ownby made three appearances (two starts) with the Riverhounds, who are affiliate partners with the Dynamo. Jason Johnson, Anthony Arena, Michael Lisch and Bryan Salazar were also sent to the Pennsylvania club earlier in the season.
“The stadium’s right on the water, it’s real nice, they get pretty good crowds there. It’s a turf field but you can’t really help it there because of the weather. It’s a pretty good relationship, I think it’s going to help our guys who are there,” said Ownby. A skillful creative midfielder, Ownby said he is working on improving his crossing, his first touch and becoming more polished in possession.
For Kinnear, Ownby’s recent improvement shows that dispatching young players out on loan can be an invaluable part of their development process. “You look at Brian, last year especially, I think when he came back he looked a much better and more confident player than when he left. Playing time does that,” he said.
“I think it’s better to learn and make mistakes in games rather than in training where maybe the consequences aren’t as great. So I think it’s always good. You’re not sending them away for punishment, you’re sending them away to get better. You can only get so much out of training, I think you learn a lot more when you play in meaningful games.”
As Kinnear regretfully mulls over his reduced options this week, Ownby will keep working hard, stay patient and hope that he is about to learn plenty more about this often magical yet sometimes brutal sport while playing in Dynamo orange.