CHAMPIONSGATE, United States â€” At six foot five, forward Ben Spencer is hard to miss at Toronto FC practice. His journey there has taken him from New Mexico via Norway with a lengthy rehab from a rare knee condition along the way.
Restored to health thanks to a Chicago surgeon, the 21-year-old Spencer is looking forward to show what he can do â€” and paying back Toronto.
“I’m very fortunate that Toronto’s been so patient with me and has believed in me so much,” he said. “For me that’s given me a lot of comfort through my rehab, because it’s a tough time mentally and physically.”
Spencer left home at age 15 to chase his soccer dream, working his way through the U.S. youth ranks and earning a contract with Molde FK in Norway as an 18-year-old. Toronto coach Greg Vannney spotted his talent as a 14-year-old and has kept an eye on Spencer ever since, ultimately bringing him in on loan in April 2015.
Spencer’s injury nightmare started in 2014 when he tore his meniscus playing in the NASL. He underwent minor surgery and returned to action. Then two months later a flare-up in his knee while playing for the U.S. under-23 team in Brazil necessitated another round of arthroscopic surgery.
Later that year, he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his other knee while playing for the U.S. at the CONCACAF under-20 championship.
Deemed surplus to requirements by Molde, Spencer found a home in Toronto where his problem right knee started swelling up again. Club medical staff tried everything but to no avail.
Chicago orthopedic surgeon Brian Cole eventually diagnosed a rare condition where the meniscus is so worn that a hole develops, with the swelling coming from cartilage damage.
Spencer needed cartilage replacement â€” and to have his femur re-aligned to alter the weight-bearing in his knee. The diagnosis â€” and major surgery that was needed â€” came as a shock.
“Being told I’d be out for a year is pretty heart-breaking,” he said. “You kind of go through sort of a grieving process â€” of denial. You can’t believe it’s you. Then you’re upset that it is you. Then you’re sad that you’re going to be out of the game so long.
“And then you just kind of come to the realization that this is where you are and the only way you’re going to dig yourself out of that hole is by working hard and doing all the little things right.”
He underwent surgery in September 2015. If he needed motivation, Spencer got it from newspaper reports in Norway that his career was over.
He spent the next two months at home in New Mexico. Spencer could not put his right leg on the ground for two months and for six weeks had to spend six hours a day in a machine that bent his knee.
He returned to Toronto FC’s training centre to continue his rehab, building back the muscle, flexibility and balance.
“I spent hours and hours and hours every single day â€” in the gym, in and around the gym, in the treatment rooms,” he recalled. “I’ve spent my fair share of time there.”
It was nine months after surgery before Spencer could run or jump and another three months before he could finally take the field for Toronto FC 2’s last two games of the 2016 USL season.
Said Vanney: “He’s worked incredibly hard to come back from all of that … Now he’s in a very good place. He’s training every day.”
The Toronto coach has long been a believer in Spencer.
“He’s unique in his size and his skill set,” Vanney said. “He has very soft feet, he moves well as a big guy … He was the No. 1 striker for the U.S. under-20 team when he was healthy and in form.”
And he is very much a work in progress. Vanney notes Spencer would only be a senior now if he had attended college.
“I think the potential to be a very good forward in our league is there,” he said. “He’s a hard worker. He studies the game, he studies the movements of forwards who are similar to him and he studies defenders on how he can find ways to score goals and impact games.
“I like his mentality â€” to work and get better. That’s why he’s with us.”
Vanney was scouting for U.S. Soccer’s youth teams when he first spotted the Albuquerque native and recommended him to the under-15 program. A year later, Vanney was involved with Real Salt Lake’s fledgling residency program and invited Spencer to join.
“I thought he had a lot of interesting tools that were very unique in our country for forwards,” said Vanney.
Vanney moved to Chivas USA in California and Spencer eventually followed, living for six months with the Vanney family before moving in with Mike Munoz, now head coach of LA Galaxy 2.
Spencer trained at Chivas, along with current Toronto teammate Marky Delgado, while working his way up through the U.S. youth ranks.
A 16-year-old Spencer ranked second for fitness in the so-called beep test among the entire Chivas team.
When Chivas folded, a 17-year-old Spencer chose to play for Molde over a scholarship at UC Santa Barbara. Former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a Norwegian and Manchester United legend, was his manager there.
All went well in Spencer’s first year there. The team won the Norwegian Cup and he learned his trade under Solskjaer. But the manager moved to Cardiff City and his successor, Tor Ole Skullerud, was less interested in Spencer, who was subsequently loaned to Indy Eleven for the 2014 North American Soccer League season.
Spencer is thankful for Vanney’s belief in him. But he knows that only goes so far.
“I’m aware that every opportunity is earned … It’s still going to take a lot of hard work to get back on the field and earn minutes,” he said.
Especially on a team with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore up front, with Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton and Mo Babouli waiting in the wings.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press