CLEARWATER, Fla. — Through the tears and sleepless nights, self-doubt and four surgeries, Oniel Fisher questioned whether he would play competitive soccer again.

“A lot of tears, man,” D.C. United’s Jamaican right back said this week. “I was picturing the worst and thinking about what it would be like without soccer. All that stuff ran through my mind. What would I do next? It was hard.”

Fisher, 28, is playing again, engaged in training camp and poised to win back the starting job he relinquished almost 16 months ago.

Nearing the end of an upbeat season in 2018, Fisher tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee and suffered cartilage damage in a collision with D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

The timetable called for nine months of recovery and rehabilitation, standard for complex knee injuries of this sort. By the summer of 2019, he figured to return.

His body, however, did not go along with the plan, a defense mechanism to a serious injury.

In essence, United physical therapist Gabriel Manoel said, “his body was reacting and freaking out from surgery.”

The knee refused to flex properly. Scar tissue had amassed. Those issues had to be addressed with three follow-up surgeries, each separated by two weeks.

The slow and sometimes painful road took a toll.

“Mentally, I was out of it,” Fisher said. “Sometimes I would go in for treatment and wondered: Why am I even here?”

There were no further complications, just months of work with Manoel. As he neared a return last season, a strained left hamstring stalled the progress.

“All the little hiccups that, although they aren’t that serious, they do tack on two months, and then it keeps going and going,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “That seven-to-nine month injury becomes a year-and-a-half injury and makes it that much harder to come back.”

As the return date drifted from one season into the next, Fisher came to terms with the long struggle.

“Sometimes I used to think about it a lot in a negative way,” he said. “At one point, I didn’t feel like I could make it, but I had to let the positive outweigh the negative and focus on everything being all right.”

It was all right late last season, though Fisher was not quite ready for a real match with D.C.'s second-division outfit, Loudoun United.

His first appearance since he injured the knee came in November in the Caribbean — not in his native Jamaica but in St. Croix for a D.C. friendly against Bermuda’s national team. Fisher played the second half with some nerves and no setbacks.

The offseason allowed him to continue regaining leg strength, and 11 days into training camp, he started at right back in the preseason opener against the Montreal Impact — the same opponent against which he got injured.

“The first 15 to 20 minutes, I was pretty gassed,” he said. “After that, I felt like I was back in the mix and ready to start playing at the highest level again.”

Asked afterward how far along is he in the comeback, Fisher said, “Ninety-five to 98 percent. . . . Coming back from this injury, my main focus was getting my knee right. And then getting back on the field. I’ve been putting that work in for the last 13 to 14 months, so now I feel pretty comfortable playing. My awareness is starting to come back.”

United will not rush him.

“The body is getting there,” Olsen said. “The brain has to catch up.”

That was evident during a recent workout when the rust from a long layoff surfaced. Fisher collected the ball from center back Frédéric Brillant and misplayed it.

Olsen told him: “Play it simple. Don’t complicate things. It’s been a while. It will come. You’ll be fine.”

Although United will remain patient, the team has plans for Fisher, one of two natural right backs on the roster. The other is Chris Odoi-Atsem, who last winter tackled a more serious medical threat: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The former University of Maryland standout returned to make three appearances with D.C. United and six with Loudoun United.

In their comeback efforts, the recovering players kept each other’s spirits up.

“We would push each other, cheer each other on,” said Odoi-Atsem, 24, who is entering his fourth season. “It’s great to see him look more and more like himself.”

At his best, Fisher both keeps pace with invading wingers and uses his speed to raid the flank with overlapping runs. In 2018, he complemented Wayne Rooney’s arrival and Luciano Acosta’s rebirth in charging a resurgent attack.

Before last season, with Fisher sidelined and Odoi-Atsem recovering, United acquired Leonardo Jara on loan from Argentina’s Boca Juniors. Jara attacked well but didn’t defend well and lost the starting job late in the year to Russell Canouse, a natural defensive midfielder.

Jara did not return this season, and with Canouse, Fisher and Odoi-Atsem available, United hasn’t seen a need to sign another right back.

Six preseason matches will offer Olsen ample opportunity to monitor Fisher’s progress. In all likelihood, Canouse will spend time at right back, as well.

For Fisher, United’s faith in him has further fueled his determination.

“I’m grateful, man. They could have moved on. Hopefully everything will play out in a great way and great things will come this season.”

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