John Thorrington lands with D.C. United after long journey

Al Messerschmidt/GETTY IMAGES - “It’s no secret Johnny has had injuries, but if he can play in 20 or 25 games [in all competitions] again, it’s the right move,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said of John thorrington, above left.

DELTONA, Fla. – As he left the field in the second half of Wednesday’s preseason match against Philadelphia, D.C. United’s John Thorrington shook Coach Ben Olsen’s hand and said, “I was just getting started.”

Both smiled. In the twilight of Thorrington’s injury-pocked career, one that began 16 years ago in Manchester United’s youth academy and crossed paths with Olsen on different levels, both player and coach recognize the midfielder’s limitations.

Even in a mild-mannered friendly 10 days before the season opener, an hour of work was enough.

“He is going to have some weeks where he isn’t able to play,” Olsen said. “We understood that when we got him.”

United got Thorrington, 33, in the MLS re-entry draft in December, a mechanism for veterans out of contract. Since 2000, when he missed the Olympics with a hamstring injury, Thorrington has compiled a list of muscular ailments longer than some players’ portfolios: Both quadriceps, hamstrings and calves have failed him countless times.

But with guidance from a Canadian physiotherapist best known for extending NBA star Steve Nash’s career, Thorrington enjoyed a relatively healthy 2012 season for the Vancouver Whitecaps. And when United claimed him, he felt he still had something to offer.

“When I come to crossroads and don’t know what door is going to open, one always does,” he said. “And this one felt right.”

United has reasonable expectations: spot duty in the starting lineup, wisdom as an experienced substitute, leadership on a team with at least 15 players age 25 or younger.

“It’s no secret Johnny has had injuries, but if he can play in 20 or 25 games [in all competitions] again, it’s the right move,” Olsen said.

Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa, the projected starters in central midfield, are more comfortable defending and supplying passes than attacking. Thorrington is a two-way player with the touch to unlock defenses.

He also inherits a role occupied the previous two seasons by Josh Wolff, who retired to become a United assistant coach: a veteran whom Olsen knows and trusts.

Part of the appeal for both Thorrington and United was familiarity. He, Olsen and Wolff were teammates on the U.S. under-23 team that qualified for the Sydney Games 13 years ago. (Thorrington was subsequently sidelined while seeking a move to English club Bolton.)

The trio then entered the national team player pool together and faced one another in MLS.

“At this stage in my career, I know the coaches better than the players,” Thorrington joked. On a serious note, “my relationship with Ben was fundamental to me coming here.”

By landing in Washington, Thorrington continues a global journey. He was born in South Africa and moved with his family to the Los Angeles area when he was 2. His father, Peter, was a world-class runner, he said, banned from competing in the Olympics because of South Africa’s apartheid policy.

At 17, Thorrington was discovered by Manchester United and enrolled in a youth system that has manufactured some of soccer’s greatest talents. Two years later, he moved to German club Bayer Leverkusen and was teammates with then 17-year-old Landon Donovan, the future U.S. national team superstar.

Thorrington returned to England at a humble level, playing for third-division Huddersfield Town and Grimsby Town. In 2005, he signed with Chicago and spent six years there.

Throughout his travels, Thorrington was hampered by injuries. His most productive stretch was 2008-09, starting 40 regular season games and earning an invitation to the U.S. national team after a seven-year absence.

The ailments continued, however, and he made just five appearances in his final year with the Fire, which left him unprotected in the 2010 expansion draft.

Although injuries surfaced again in Vancouver, by the end of the season he had connected with Rick Celebrini, a renowned physiotherapist. Celebrini discovered a neurological issue in Thorrington’s back at the root of the leg problems.

“When I am tiring or asking of that muscle, it just gives,” Thorrington said. “Not to say the muscle is not strong enough; the nerve is not firing efficiently enough to handle the demand.”

Celebrini prescribed an exercise routine emphasizing quality of movement and habitual patterns of movement. In warmup routines, Thorrington avoided excessive stress on his back.

“I was like his robot,” Thorrington said. “He would tell me to do this, do that, and I got better each step of the way.”

Before agreeing to a contract with United, Thorrington arranged for Celebrini to consult with D.C.’s staff.

“Injuries have been such a big part of my career,” he said. “When I think this is it, I’m finished, there have been enough signs of hope to keep going. There’s a role for me here no matter how many games I play. It’s a role that suits me.”

United notes: Defender Henry Kalungi and goalkeeper Matt VanOekel were cut, reducing the roster to 31. Additional moves are expected soon. Kalungi will rejoin the third-division Richmond Kickers, while VanOekel re-signed with the second-tier Minnesota Stars. . . . Forward Michael Seaton, 16, returned to Washington to rest a sprained ankle. . . . United will close the preseason against Philadelphia at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic.

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