VANCOUVER, B.C. — Jay DeMerit was first out of the tunnel for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ first pregame warmup of the 2014 season. He jogged around the perimeter of the field briefly, clapping to salute the fans, and the sparse early crowd at B.C. Place reciprocated with hearty cheers.
It was a year ago, at the start of the 2013 season, that DeMerit ruptured his left Achilles tendon, leaving his season and career in jeopardy. However, the U.S.’s 2010 World Cup starting center back seems to have put it behind him, recovering more quickly than expected and signing a contract extension in January.
“I knew I had a long road in front of me, and I looked at other guys that have been in my position before: David Beckham, there are a couple NFL guys that have torn Achilles’ and gotten back in six months and gone on to continue their careers,” DeMerit told SI.com of his mindset after the injury. “If other people can do it, I can do it.”
The normal time frame for recovery from an Achilles rupture is six to nine months. The older the player, the longer it usually takes. Regardless, DeMerit was back to full action in September, after having suffered the injury on opening day in March.
After a full preseason, he played 90 minutes in the Whitecaps’ surprising 4-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. Beyond the sense of joy that defeating the Supporters’ Shield holders would give a player, he spoke after the game about the sense of relief it also gave him.
“It felt good to come through a game like that with a lot of unknowns throughout the offseason, not only in the personnel, but the manager and, obviously, my future,” he said. “There are mental things that you have to prove to yourself and also to this club by the end of the season, and I was able to do both of those.”
It’s hard not to think about the future with such a young Vancouver team. Other starters included players aged 21 (Russell Teibert), 22 (Matías Laba), 23 (Darren Mattocks) and 24 (Sebastián Fernández). The bench was just as young.
DeMerit, 34, said the challenge of mentoring those players was a deciding factor in his desire to remain in Vancouver, especially with Carl Robinson’s promotion from assistant to head coach. Robinson took over from Martin Rennie in December, promising to bring an up-tempo, attacking style to a team that failed to make the playoffs in 2013.
“He’s kept the older guys here that relish that role — guys that like to mentor and like to take the younger guys under their wings and make sure that they’re learning in the right ways,” DeMerit said. "It was great to see tonight, in our first game out there after only six weeks of being together."
Despite his propensity to bounce back from adversity, DeMerit’s recovery came at a poor time for his national team career. The last cap he earned was in 2011, under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, and he said he has had no conversations with successor Jürgen Klinsmann about a possible return.
“I know that when I was a 26-year-old coming through, and I wanted my chance, you normally get a four-year cycle to do that,” DeMerit said. “There are other guys that are good, quality defenders — Matt Besler, Omar González — those guys have been working very hard to get their chance, and they’re getting it now. I’ll be a U.S. fan first, and I’ll always cheer for our team. I’m looking forward to seeing what those guys can do this summer.”
Even with the U.S.’s defensive juggling over the past year and a 2-0 loss to Ukraine on March 5 in which the center backs were especially susceptible, DeMerit has no expectations of receiving a phone call.
“There are proven defenders in there, so I just have to keep working on my game, and that’s all I can ever control,” he said. “It really doesn’t have too much to do with me.”
That leaves the entire starting back line from the 2010 U.S. squad — DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu and Steve Cherundolo — outside the current picture. Onyewu played poorly against Ukraine, and Cherundolo is still recovering from a long-term knee injury. Bocanegra was stripped of the captain's armband and his place in the squad after a loss to Honduras early in World Cup qualifying.
DeMerit is the only one of the quartet that hasn't worn a U.S. shirt under Klinsmann. However, he seems content to focus on playing out his new contract north of the border. “Going into an offseason, I was looking forward to this year, hoping that I could get the contract done, and we did,” he said. “I’m happy to be here. I’ve always wanted to be here and end my career here, and it looks like I’ll be able to do that.”