Sporting Kansas City defender Kevin Ellis walked into the practice facility early one morning last month and checked in with the head trainer. After receiving brief treatment for a groin injury, he jogged onto the practice field to partake in a series of solo drills. They were labor-intensive, he later described, and the beads of sweat across his forehead told a similar story.
The day was just getting started. When the club concluded its practice, Ellis joined his teammates for lunch, but he then returned to the field and jogged around its perimeter.
"I was asking the trainers to help me do everything to come back faster. I mean you don't want to overwork yourself and risk something, but at the same time, you want to do extra work if it helps you get back," Ellis said. "I'm one of those guys who cannot stand not being able to practice, let alone play in the games."
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The absence and ensuing rehab spanned seven weeks, but Ellis beat his projected timeline by 10 days when he rejoined his teammates for last Friday's match against D.C. United.
The return couldn't have provided better timing for Sporting KC, which is without its top two center backs. Captain Matt Besler is with the United States men's national team for Copa America Centenario, which begins Friday, and Nuno Coelho is nursing a hamstring strain. That leaves Ellis and Ike Opara as the only true center backs available for Sporting Kansas City's match Thursday night against the LA Galaxy.
In last Friday's 1-0 loss to the United, Ellis was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy outcome. He recorded seven recoveries, six successful tackles and five interceptions.
"He played well in a time where we needed him to play well," Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. "But the most impressive piece to me was that he was able to go the full 90 minutes, which is huge for a guy who's been out that long."
Ellis was injured during Sporting Kansas City's trip to New York on April 9, when he reached his leg for a bouncing ball in the penalty box. Ellis said he could immediately feel something wasn't right, and he departed the game in the first half.
When he returned Friday, he had a different back-line mate. Opara and Ellis started together for the first time since March 14, 2015.
That combination offers Ellis a more defined role than the one he grew into last season. When Ellis paired with Besler in the center of the defense for the majority of 2015, the two players split most duties — including which would surge toward the sky for an aerial battle.
Now, Ellis allows the athletic Opara to take care of the heavy lifting.
"He's able to go up and win those aerials, and I'm covering behind," Ellis said. "It works well. I feel like Ike and I got in a lot of good time together on the field in the preseason. I feel like we played well together. We just have to take that onto the field."