CHAMPIONSGATE, Fla. â€” Clement Simonin is without a contract at Toronto FC’s training camp, his future up in the air.
But the French defender is all smiles these days. Finally healthy after a two-year injury roller-coaster, the 25-year-old Simonin is confident he can show off the skills that prompted Toronto to pick the unheralded North Carolina State centre back ninth overall in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
“Everything is perfect. Feeling fit. Everything good,” Simonin said. “It feels nice to be feeling this way.”
Things looked bright early in the 2015 season with Simonin, pressed into action due to injuries to three defenders, made his MLS debut at Real Salt Lake City in late March. Across the Atlantic, his parents scoured Twitter for live updates.
“Personally I had a blast,” he said two days later. “It was an amazing experience being out there. And I hope that’s the first of many.”
Simonin has played just one league game since.
In the wake of a hard tackle in Salt Lake, he started feeling pain in his right knee. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his meniscus in mid-April, a normal procedure with a three-month rehab.
A week after returning to training in July, he tore a different part of the same meniscus when someone fell on his leg making a tackle in practice. They tried everything to settle the knee â€” he even started a game in Seattle in September and felt good doing so â€” but eventually he went under the knife again in October.
After viewing the damage up close, his surgeon opted for a more radical approach â€” re-attaching the meniscus. The procedure came with a positive prognosis but a much longer recovery time of nine months.
“It’s a very long time,” Simonin said. “When people get ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery, which is a massive surgery, it takes six months. This one took nine.”
He spent six weeks on crutches and needed three months before he could even start jogging. Not to mention countless hours of solo work at the Toronto FC training ground.
Nine months later, he played one game with the reserves and tore the quad muscle in his other leg making a long pass. He was out for a couple of months, returning in time for the last TFC 2 game of the 2016 USL season.
He spent his Christmas break in France training, his body healed and his spirit soaring.
“Every day it was such a pleasure to just get to work. I was thinking of this season and pre-season the whole time. The places I have been to in my head, coming back fully fit for pre-season, I cherish it so much. It’s super-special. I feel so good on the field. I feel so good off the field because of it. It’s a brand new start.”
Simonin has a lot of catching up to do. He has played just 171 minutes in the league plus a handful of matches with Toronto FC 2 since joining the organization.
Last December, Toronto elected not to pick up his contract option. Simonin, in camp on trial, is not fazed.
“They know me as a player. They know my value. They know me as a man also … My only concern is to be fit, stay fit. I know the rest will come.”
He played 90 minutes in Toronto’s 3-1 win over Orlando on Wednesday, starting alongside the 10 first-team regulars. While there were a couple of missteps, he showed a cool head under pressure.
“These games are going to important for him as he plays against MLS opponents …. We want to get him through 90 minutes and get through 90 minutes clean,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
Restricted to just seven games as a college senior due to hernia surgery, Simonin slipped under the radar. Not to Toronto, however. The team was drawn by his defensive skills and silky left foot.
Simonin was embarking on an MBA when he heard he had been drafted, studies that have since been put on hold.
Simonin and forward Ben Spencer, who has come back from a severe knee injury of his own, have been brothers in arms during their lengthy rehabs.
“It’s a very, very hard time. Because everyone’s enjoying (their soccer) and you’re not doing what you love,” Simonin said. “And it’s very frustrating watching people going out every day and (you’re) just sitting by yourself in the gym.”
Eventually both Simonin and Spencer found perspective.
“It’s part of the job and there are worse things that happen,” said Simonin.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press