It’s been 14 games and 98 days since Toronto FC fullback Richard Eckersley hurt his hamstring.
Somewhat embarrassingly, he suffered the injury celebrating teammate Darel Russell’s tying goal March 6 against FC Dallas.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” the 24-year-old English defender said with a sheepish smirk. “When other people score then I’ll just relax a little bit. But it was the 92nd minute. I think emotions got the better of me. . . . It’s happened. I can’t really do much about it.”
Finally healthy — he aggravated the injury during convalescence — Eckersley should see action Saturday as Toronto (2-8-7) visits Sporting Kansas City (8-5-6).
Kansas City, which has a 17-point edge over Toronto in the standings, won 2-1 in Chicago last weekend and is undefeated in its last four league outings and in seven of its last eight.
Toronto is coming off a bye weekend. Its last outing was July 3 when it blew a 3-1 lead and had to settle for a 3-3 tie with the visiting Montreal Impact.
In 2011 and 2012, Eckersley was almost a club constant seeing action in 56 games. This season, the number is just five.
Suspensions, international call-ups and injuries have not helped the Toronto backline in recent weeks.
Manager Ryan Nelsen has been forced to shift centre back Darren O’Dea to left fullback and has been playing Ryan Richter at right back in Eckersley’s absence.
Eckersley’s return is welcome for all those reasons. And because he is a tireless runner and a gritty defender who helps drive Toronto.
But in the longer run, while the club has said nothing publicly, Eckersley’s salary is a problem in a league where the salary cap is a tight $2.95-million.
Listed at $310,000 (and it may be bigger if Toronto has used allocation money to reduce the amount listed against the salary cap), the red-headed Brit makes more than the high-priced defenders voted into the Fan XI for the 2013 all-star game: Kansas City’s Matt Besler ($200,000) and Aurelien Collin ($256,250), and Los Angeles’ Omar Gonzalez ($282,000).
According to the MLS Players Union TFC salary list, Eckersley is the team’s third highest-paid player after Dutch striker Danny Koevermans (a designated player with a $1.663-million salary) and defender-captain Darren O’Dea (whose $465,250 is also problematic).
And Eckersley’s contract is guaranteed for next season.
Spending $300,000-plus on a fullback in MLS is like buying a Prada toilet brush. It’s handy and nice to have. But can you justify buying it?
Richter, Eckersley’s replacement, makes $35,125.
The injury has not helped matters, since Eckersley has been reduced to an expensive spectator. Toronto president Kevin Payne, however, admits the club could have handled Eckersley’s injury better.
“Players, especially younger players like Richard, their enthusiasm sometimes get the better of them,” Payne told reporters this week. “And we probably rushed Richard back a little bit or allowed him to rush himself back a little bit. So I think we learned something from that one.”
Said Eckersley: “I never really rested it the first time round. Obviously I was trying to get back as soon as possible. So I think we didn’t give it time to rest and repair itself.”
He says the injury took a mental toll, “because you’re paid to play football and you can’t do it.”
“So you take it out on other members of your family. But they understand. There were times when I was a little bit down but like I say it’s injuries and you’re a footballer, you’re a professional athlete and you’ve got to learn how to deal with them.”
While Eckersley has been a regular in the TFC lineup, he is no stranger to long-term injury. The former Manchester United youth product had a back injury when he was 17.
Striker Danny Koevermans in unavailable Saturday with a calf issue but Robert Earnshaw is healthy again. Toronto is short in midfield with Jonathan Osorio at the Gold Cup with Canada and Luis Silva traded to D.C. United.
Still Kansas City manager Peter Vermes calls Toronto an athletic side not to be underestimated.
“I think they’re better than they were last year,” he told a news conference this week. “I say it all the time. I don’t think that record is a good indicator of what kind of team you’re playing in this league because there’s so much parity.”
Toronto defeated Kansas City 2-1 at the Rogers Centre in March in the second game of the season for both teams.
“I don’t think we’re going to forget that,” said Vermes, referring to “soft goals” his team gave away that day.