USA TODAY Sports Images

Houston Dynamo defender Eric Brunner awaits his full return to the squad: "It’s not fun just watching"

Perhaps it was a portent of things to come for the Dynamo. In a season so far characterized by absences, Eric Brunner suffered a serious injury before the MLS campaign had even begun.

The 28-year-old’s right ankle was hurt during the Dynamo’s final preseason game against the Charleston Battery on March 1, a week before the team took the field at BBVA Compass Stadium for a curtain-raising, spirits-lifting 4-0 win over the New England Revolution.

“It was kind of a weird tackle, I felt it when I tried to recover,” he told HoustonDynamo.com. It presented the defender and Houston’s medical team with a dilemma: wait and possibly play through the pain as best he could, or opt for surgery knowing he would be out for a couple of months?

“I could either wait and see, or go into surgery and get it fixed and be ready for the rest of the year. I wanted to be 100 percent, not put the Band Aid routine on it, so surgery; and then it’s just kind of been a grind to get back,” he said.

“I was looking at what’s best for myself and what’s best for the team. I didn’t want to be in one week, out the next week, doing Band Aid treatments trying to keep it ready, not being 100 percent. So it was definitely tough and it’s hard when results aren’t going the team’s way and you want to be here to help out and be supportive and push guys in training.”

About a month after the injury, Brunner underwent the procedure to remove loose bodies from his ankle, which was performed by the Dynamo's foot and ankle surgeon, Dr. Kevin Varner of Houston Methodist. Though not fully fit, a major sign that Brunner’s recovery was progressing well was when he was named on the bench in the shorthanded Dynamo’s defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes on May 25. 

He was also an unused substitute in last Sunday’s loss to the Colorado Rapids and will no doubt hope to be involved on Friday when Houston host old foes Sporting Kansas City in the last MLS match at BBVA Compass Stadium for a month (7:30 p.m. CT, TICKETS).

“It was nice being in the locker room again and playing with the guys before the game, wearing the uniform, putting shinguards on. It was fun. Hopefully I can continue doing it,” he said.

The Dynamo’s final game before MLS takes a World Cup break is on June 11, when they host the Laredo Heat in the U.S. Open Cup as the second part of a doubleheader with the Houston Dash. That may be a good opportunity for him to start shaking off the rust.

“It’s probably not fully there yet but I’m training so it’s good, I think it’s just going to take time,” Brunner said last week at Houston Sports Park. “I’m just excited to be back out in training, touching the ball. It’s not fun just watching.”

The 6-foot-4-inch Ohio native made 13 regular season appearances last year after joining from the Portland Timbers. He saved his best until the end of last season, starting all five playoff games and becoming a linchpin at the heart of the defense.

In his absence, offseason acquisition David Horst—a former Timbers teammate—has impressed alongside Jermaine Taylor, while rookie AJ Cochran has made three solid starts that belied his inexperience. 

Brunner has been encouraging the team from the sidelines and passing on advice to the young players. The Dynamo will look to snap a three-match losing streak on Friday against the reigning MLS champions. “I tried to help them out as much as I could just from watching,” he said. “Even though results aren’t going our way we’ve been in situations like this, so it’s important not to deviate from the plan.”

This is not his first injury—he had surgery on the same ankle while with Portland in October 2012, and has missed time with concussions. But Brunner said it feels strange being absent for so long during an MLS campaign.

“It’s the first time I’ve had an injury during the season that’s kept me out [this long]. It’s definitely tough especially when you put in all that work in preseason, so now I’m getting fit at the hottest time of the year. It’s good, though, because it’ll get you fit quicker. It’s a blessing in disguise I guess,” he said. 

Trying to rationalize his sheer bad luck, Brunner is taking a philosophical approach: hoping that a frustrating first half of the season is the precursor of a successful second part of the year, and that in the long run, his repaired ankle and his delayed start will make him a better player down the stretch. 

“I’ve been in the league a long time, I’ve had some injuries here and there, nothing this long. It’s stuff you’re always learning. You’re never going to understand every situation, just like this one. It’s tough, but stay positive—it happens for a reason I guess,” he said.