Fabian Espindola returns for D.C. United match vs. Real Salt Lake


Fabian Espindola, shown in May vs. Montreal, is D.C. United’s leading scorer despite missing six matches. He remains angry about how he was injured, by a hard tackle early in a June match vs. Montreal. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

It does not take much to motivate Fabian Espindola to step onto a soccer field. Ahead of D.C. United’s visit in Utah on Saturday, consider these added incentives:

● Espindola has missed almost two months with a knee injury.

● MLS declined to punish the opponent who damaged his right medial collateral ligament two seconds into a match but suspended Espindola for retaliation.

● He is facing a Real Salt Lake side that employed him for his first six seasons in the league.

● And for the second consecutive weekend, United (11-6-4) is in position to move atop the overall standings.

“It’s been a long time,” Espindola said. “I was going crazy.”

Despite missing six matches, Espindola remains United’s top producer with seven goals and eight assists . The club fared fine without him, winning four straight between losses to Seattle and Houston. But amid injuries and a month crammed with games, United is eager to have him back.

“He had a smile on his face [this week] for the first time in a while,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “He just wants to play. He is that type of guy. If he is not playing the game of soccer, he seems not to be the happiest guy. This is what he does, and he is passionate about it.”

Sidelined for so long, Espindola is not ready to play a full game; he is healthy but not fully match-fit. Olsen would not say how he will use his Argentine forward against Real: start him and squeeze 60 minutes out of him, summon him midway through the second half or let the game dictate terms.

But he is almost certain to play for the first time since June 11 in Montreal, where he assisted on three goals in the first half before leaving at intermission.

“I am ready,” said Espindola, an MVP candidate until the injury. “It’s up to Ben. I’ll be fine playing. I’ll be fine on the bench. I’d like to play a little bit.”

Whether it’s Saturday or the following weekend, Espindola is probably going to bump Luis Silva from the starting front line. Silva, though, has performed well for two months, posting a first-half hat trick in that Montreal game and two goals in July. He has been so effective, Olsen said he will consider starting him in central midfield at some point.

Espindola rejoins an attack that scored 10 goals during the four-game winning streak before generating few chances in a 1-0 loss at Houston on Sunday.

Espindola remains angry about the circumstances of his injury: At the opening whistle, Montreal’s Felipe Martins rushed into the center circle and crashed into Espindola’s right leg as he was passing the ball.

“That was not an accident. He went for it. He didn’t apologize,” he said. “One hundred percent, he should’ve been suspended. He put me out for almost two months, and they didn’t do [anything] about it.

“I don’t know if he wanted to do it or someone else told him to go hard at me. I know how to play hard and never hurt somebody.”

MLS’s disciplinary committee reviewed the incident but did not reach the necessary unanimous verdict to sanction Martins.

Instead, Espindola was suspended two games (served during his injury rehab) for whacking Martins in the lower leg during a stoppage in the 30th minute.

With the incident behind it and Espindola healed, United cannot wait to see him back in action.

“He has had a little break, and I am sure he is going to be recharged and ready to go,” Olsen said. “Hopefully he can mimic the success he had early.”

United note: Midfielder Perry Kitchen is serving a yellow-card suspension.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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