Felipe Martins envisions D.C. United return after recovering from torn ACL

In the days and weeks following Felipe Martins’ knee surgery to repair his torn ACL last summer, the D.C. United midfielder documented each stage of his recovery.

He’d be awake at 3 a.m. or later, in too much pain to sleep, opting instead to ice his knee or use Game Ready, a cold compression system. He’d pull out his phone and take pictures or videos of dull early-morning sessions. He wanted to remember how low he felt then, at the beginning of his rehabilitation from a major injury, to put everything else into perspective.

“When I’m in difficult moments, I can go back to those moments and remember that what I’m going through now at that moment is not as close as what happened before,” Martins said. “It’s just a mind game I use to always remember where I was and where I am right now.”

Eight months after Martins suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a training session, Martins is back with D.C. United. He’s working his way into the mix once more. His return is ahead of schedule; he’s been practicing for the past few weeks and was featured in the team’s 18-man squad for last weekend’s match against New England Revolution.

Martins didn’t appear in that game, but he knows how close he is to returning. And that prompted him to take a look at how far he’s come.

Last week, before he stepped into the locker room as part of a match-day squad for the first time since Aug. 29, 2020, Martins viewed the more than 300 videos and pictures he’d captured during his recovery — and he appreciated how those difficult circumstances preserved on his phone’s camera roll shaped him.

“Understand that tough moments can make you better,” Martins said. “It makes you better if you only believe it can happen. And I always believed in me, and I keep belief, and I always think I’m gonna be better after this month and the next month and I’m always going to continue to be better because the work is what makes the difference.”

Before his injury, Martins was a key player for D.C. United. He arrived in Washington midway through the 2019 campaign in a trade from the Vancouver Whitecaps, and he slotted straight into the starting squad.

Martins started seven matches in 2020 as well, providing two assists. Then he tore his ACL in training on Sept. 1, 2020, sidelining him for the longest stretch of his MLS career. He’s not used to being away from the pitch. Since 2012, when the Brazilian native joined MLS with the Montreal Impact, Martins said he had missed just seven training sessions before tearing his ACL.

“So you guys understand how hard it was for me to miss all those games,” Martins said.

But he turned that disappointment into motivation, aiming to shorten the estimated nine-month recovery window while striving to come back stronger. In practice on Wednesday, for instance, he completed a top-speed test. His recorded speed was 101% of his pre-surgery mark.

He’s not only back fit — he’s faster than he used to be.

Still, while Martins feels confident in his knee again and can keep pace in training sessions, coach Hernan Losada won’t throw Martins straight into the starting lineup. Martins said what’s missing now is his rhythm, and he hopes to rediscover that timing through substitute appearances.

“The kind of fitness maybe you can’t train in training sessions is the kind of fitness he needs,” Losada said, “and you get only by playing minutes and playing games.”

Martins doesn’t know when his return to the pitch might occur, but it could happen as soon as Saturday night against the San Jose Earthquakes. Whenever he does step onto the field once more, though, Martins doesn’t expect an overflow of emotions.

He’s spent the last eight months imagining what that moment will be like.

“So when I get, I don’t get too excited because I already played that in my mind,” Martins said. “And I feel ready. I feel confident. And hopefully soon enough I can be on the field.”

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