TORONTO — Ben Spencer's hard work paid off with an MLS debut for Toronto FC.
But the 22-year-old striker was already looking forward to what's next after completing a gruelling comeback from a string of injuries to start Friday's 5-0 win over Columbus Crew SC.
"It's definitely a proud moment for me and very rewarding for all the work that's been put into this point," he said after the game. "But that's now behind me and now the next step is contributing regularly to the first team."
Left unspoken were memories of visits to specialists, hours of rehab in the gym and the uncertainly over what was left of a promising soccer future.
With Toronto FC spending some US$12 million this season alone on Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, time up front is limited — especially with Canadian Tosaint Ricketts proving to be a game-changer off the bench.
But with Altidore (suspended) and Giovinco (injured) unavailable Friday, a healthy Spencer finally got his chance with 60 minutes on the pitch. The six-foot-five forward, who combines size with a deft touch, showed off his vision with a fine assist on a Justin Morrow goal.
Coach Greg Vanney called the game a "learning curve" for Spencer, with good and bad moments. While a tough critic, Vanney has kept faith with Spencer since scouting him as a 14-year-old.
A former star striker in the U.S. youth ranks who earned a contract with Norway's Molde FK at 18, Spencer's injury nightmare started in 2014 when he tore his meniscus playing in the NASL while on loan.
Two months after minor surgery, a flare-up in his knee while with the U.S. under-23 team necessitated more arthroscopic surgery. Later that year, he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his other knee while playing for the U.S. under-20 team.
Deemed surplus to requirements under Molde's new management, Spencer ended up 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 — and to have his femur re-aligned to alter the weight-bearing in his knee. He underwent surgery in September 2015, spending 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 to continue his rehab, building back the muscle, flexibility and balance. 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.
Spencer's work during his comeback did not go to waste.
"On a personal level, we're all really happy for Ben," said captain Michael Bradley. "We've seen how much work he's put in behind the scenes to get himself back healthy and fit and in good form. So for him to get an opportunity tonight and to play well and to contribute in a big way to a good win, he deserves that.
"It's not been an easy stretch for him and I think he's shown everybody behind the scenes what kind of mentality he has. Because even on days when it'd be real easy to be down and frustrated. He's continued to work and work and work. And he's put himself in a really good position. And so I couldn't be happier for him."
Added veteran defender Drew Moor: "He's worked so hard."
Vanney and Spencer go back. After being recommended to the U.S. under-15 program by Vanney, Spencer followed him to Real Salt Lake's fledgling residency program in Arizona.
Vanney moved to Chivas USA in California and Spencer eventually followed, living for six months with the Vanney family.
Spencer trained at Chivas, along with current Toronto teammate Marky Delgado, while working his way up through the U.S. youth ranks. When Chivas folded, he made the move to Norway.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press