Early Return of Midfielder Thabiso Khumalo Provides D.C. United a Welcome Spark

Having recovered from surgery and infection, midfielder Thabiso Khumalo provided two goals in United's last match, a 5-1 Champions League victory.
Having recovered from surgery and infection, midfielder Thabiso Khumalo provided two goals in United's last match, a 5-1 Champions League victory. (By Mike Stobe -- Getty Images)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

The five-inch scar travels along the inside of Thabiso "Boyzzz" Khumalo's right arm and divides the multicolored tattoo of the South African flag near his wrist. Doctors opened his flesh twice -- first in late July to insert a plate and five screws to stabilize a broken radius and then a month later when, just as he was preparing to return to D.C. United's game-day roster, an infection landed him in the hospital.

The MLS club did not expect Khumalo, a 28-year-old midfielder and forward from Soweto, to return until early to mid-October, if at all this season. Though the bone was healing well, he had a central catheter lodged into his left arm in order to administer antibiotics daily.

But with the infection subsiding and his fitness returning, Khumalo was back on the field in a reserve role last weekend and for a two-goal, 90-minute performance Wednesday. The catheter was protected by bandages and a long-sleeve shirt, the scar buffered by a removable cast.

"I've missed it. I was only watching, and that was hard," he said. "I wish I was fully healed. I wish I didn't have to play with the big cast. It looks funny. People make fun of me. Some female fan said, 'You look like Hellboy!' I said, 'Who?' I didn't know who Hellboy was."

Hellboy is a comic book character with an oversize right hand and forearm made of red stone. If called upon, Khumalo hopes to raise hell against Chivas USA on Saturday night at RFK Stadium in a match that United (8-7-12) urgently needs to win to maintain playoff aspirations.

Khumalo is unique to United in that he combines speed, energy and unpredictably on the flank. His touch needs work, but he has the ability to finish scoring opportunities. Last Sunday, in his first appearance since suffering the wrist injury July 21, he hit the crossbar from long distance near the end of a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes.

Three days later, he put away Christian Gómez's cross from short range in the first half and capped a 5-1 victory over San Juan Jabloteh of Trinidad and Tobago in the CONCACAF Champions League with a left-footed smash from 22 yards.

Because of the long layoff, Khumalo said he is at only 70 percent fitness. "His 70 percent is some other guys' 95," said assistant coach Chad Ashton, who often worked individually with Khumalo during his recovery.

"Running 20,000 laps is not going to get me fit," Khumalo said. "If I am in the game, I'm running short sprints, people are hitting me, that's how I am going to do it."

Before the injury, Khumalo was having a mixed season. Through 15 league games, he made five brief appearances before playing half of two matches and 55 minutes of another. In the U.S. Open Cup, when United turned to several secondary players, he played every minute in five games and scored three times.

But in the waning moments of a semifinal victory over second-division Rochester, a clearance by the Rhinos goalkeeper shattered his wrist. Khumalo, in a cast that covered his forearm and upper arm, figured to return in four to six weeks, but when he went for a checkup a few weeks after surgery, "the nurse looked at me and was like, 'You don't want to see this.' It was like snot -- blue stuff, red stuff was coming out."

To fight the infection, he spent five days at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. Upon his release, he had to administer antibiotics into the catheter and take pills twice a day.

Told the medicine no longer had to be taken intravenously, the catheter was removed Friday. To compensate, his pill dosage was increased. During games, he will still need the cast to protect his wrist, but the worst is over. And with United's MLS and Champions League pursuits nearing the end, Khumalo's return could inject a vital spark.

"It was a real worry that he wouldn't make it back before season's end," Ashton said. "A lot of guys, in the time he was out, would've taken another few weeks to get fitness back, but he worked so hard, he didn't lose it at all."

United Notes: Midfielder-defender Rodney Wallace is serving a yellow card suspension. . . . Chris Sharpe, a 28-year-old Australian goalkeeper from the MLS player pool, has replaced Josh Wicks (knee, shoulder injuries) on the active roster. . . .

Defender Julius James was named to Trinidad and Tobago's roster for World Cup qualifiers on Oct. 10 and 14. He will not miss any MLS matches. . . . After winning the first five games of the series, United is 0-2-2 against Chivas USA (11-9-5). In the first meeting this season, United scored two late goals for a 2-2 tie at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

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