Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
In April 2010, Geoff Cameron's flourishing career stumbled upon the most unwelcome of roadblocks.
The Houston Dynamo defender-midfielder ruptured the PCL in his right knee during a match at the Chicago Fire and was promptly ruled out for the season. For a promising player coming off his first U.S. national team cap two months earlier and an MLS Best XI selection the previous campaign, the injury seemed to be a tragic blow.
Turns out it was more of a speed bump. Cameron remarkably cut a projected eight-month recovery in half. By early August, he was back on the field, revved and ready to contribute for the season's final two and a half months.
"It was tough," Cameron said of his rehabilitation. "I'm just very, very thankful to be able to run on the field again and kick a ball."
Cameron, of course, has done that and much more. This season, he has missed just one league match, going the full 90 minutes in all 29 of his starts while notching four goals and five assists. In July, he was named to his second MLS All-Star team. Last week's 2-2 draw with Columbus marked his 100th start in all competitions for the Dynamo since being selected in the third round of the 2008 SuperDraft out of the University of Rhode Island.
Heading into Saturday's derby at FC Dallas, Houston is 9-9-12 and in decent position to secure a playoff bid after missing out on the postseason last year for the first time since the franchise moved from San Jose for the 2006 season.
Whether he's providing a box-to-box presence in midfield or posted at centerback to snuff out opposing attacks, Cameron has earned a reputation for being as reliable as they come in MLS.
"He's got a little bit of everything in his game," said Houston midfielder Adam Moffat, who has partnered centrally with Cameron for several matches since joining the club in July. "He can attack, he can defend, and he's always calm on the ball."
As a 6-foot-3 player boasting such attributes, Cameron is widely considered an enticing U.S. national team prospect. But his four-minute cameo against El Salvador in February 2010 was his only appearance under previous coach Bob Bradley. At 26 years old, however, he still has plenty of time to leave an impression on new boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
"I wish I had an opportunity — a fair one, a fair chance," Cameron explained. "But coaches have their opinions and their players. It's good that Klinsmann is in and giving guys more of an opportunity for a fresh start. My coaches say, 'You've got to take care of yourself. Keep playing well and keep doing your job and helping out the team, and the coaches will call you up.'"
Cameron's versatility presents an intriguing dilemma regarding his international prospects. While the current U.S. pool boasts an abundance of options in holding midfield, centerback is a fairly thin position dominated by aging veterans and raw potential. As Cameron puts it, his swapping between the two positions on the club level "can kind of play to my advantage, but play to my disadvantage as well."
Although Cameron has played midfield for most of this season, he filled in at centerback while defenders Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica) and Andre Hainault (Canada) were on Gold Cup duty in June. Recently, the emergence of playmaker Luiz Camargo has prompted Houston coach Dominic Kinnear to again ask Cameron to slide back to central defense.
"It's always good to have a guy on your team who is capable of playing different positions at a high level," Moffat said. "He's a really good athlete and he's smart. He's got good skill. It's great for the coaches having that option."
One coach who did recognize Cameron's talents with a call-up this summer was MLS All-Star manager Hans Backe, who selected the Massachusetts native to represent the league against Manchester United at Red Bull Arena on July 27.
The All-Stars may have suffered a 4-0 defeat, but Cameron relished the opportunity to log 52 minutes against the world's richest sports franchise.
"For a team like the Houston Dynamo, [top clubs] don't want to play us," he said. "So for me individually, it was really cool to compare myself against those guys and just to play against that caliber team. The nerves were a little bit calmer compared to my first [All-Star Game in 2009] when I was so nervous that I didn't get to enjoy and soak it up as much as I wanted to."
There is precedent, though, for Cameron testing himself against English opposition — albeit on a much more modest scale. This past offseason, he traveled to England for a training stint with Nottingham Forest. He said the experience opened his eyes to the passion and knowledge for the game abroad, noting that he would be "100 percent" interested in the right European opportunity down the road.
But with a guaranteed contract with Houston that runs through 2012, Cameron is focused on the Dynamo. Missing the playoffs in 2010 was an unprecedented experience for the fourth-year player, and it's not one he wants to repeat.
Even though his career is back on track, Cameron hasn't forgotten the knee injury that nearly derailed it 17 months ago. Earlier this month, he launched the 20 for 20 campaign, a movement he hopes will raise $20,000 (matching his uniform No. 20) for the Ronald McDonald House and Fisher House, which provide housing for family members staying near hospitalized children and military veterans, respectively.
Cameron said the campaign was inspired by his own rehabilitation, during which he came to appreciate the value of having friends and family to lean on during trying times.
"Being around loved ones and friends makes the down time go a lot faster," Cameron said. "It makes your mental attitude and awareness a little bit better, gives you a more positive outlook. Having that home away from home feeling is a great thing."