By ROB SHORE
BREMERTON, Wash. — When Matt Eronemo started thinking about playing soccer again in 2018, it wasn’t a given that he’d come back to the Kitsap Pumas. Not quite.
Even though he’d played for the club in 2015 and 2016 and spent 2017 as the team’s strength and conditioning coach he recovered from ACL surgery on his left knee, he did look for other options to continue playing.
“(Coming back) was always in the back of my mind, for sure,” said Eronemo, who has become a fixture for the Pumas in defense this season. “I talked to a few teams and agents overseas trying to create another opportunity for myself. But this seemed like the best option for myself when it came back around, so it became the perfect opportunity for me.”
He’s now gone from being the guy who led the team through pre-training warmups to one of the first names on the team sheet for Kitsap head coach Liviu Bird.
“It’s one of those things where you want to rest guys like him because he’s played every minute except for when he was injured,” Bird said. “You want to rest them at some point, but if you take them off the field, you lose so much of those leadership qualities and the intangibles It’s something we’ve thought about doing and instantly quashed the thought.”
He’s also been a valuable cog because of his ability to move throughout the defense, as center back, as right back and as the defense’s emotional leader. After missing the league opener with an ankle injury, he’s been a constant ever since.
“He’s kind of the fiery veteran out there,” said left back Mike Scharf, who first knew Eronemo as a coach last season. “He gets guys up and ready to go, to be honest. You want him out there for any battle you’ll go into.”
But it was a kind of battle just to get back onto the pitch.
Spending the 2017 season on the sideline was a growing experience, but it was hard for the defender, who desperately wanted to be playing, realizing that his knee wasn’t up to it yet.
“There were a couple days I went home and kind of teared up,” Eronemo said. “It was really hard to accept the fact that I couldn’t be playing with them because I’m so passionate about the game and I like playing as long as I can. But I accepted my role and I took it on very well and I became a better coach and person from that experience. But now I’m more than excited to be playing.”
But the coaching experience was a boon for Eronemo, who has been a personal trainer for two years and would more chances to coach down the road.
“I gained some knowledge and experience listening to coaches talk every day as a coach, not as a player, that was good for me too,” he said. “It was really good to see the game in a different way — a lot more calm way, not on the field running around, but watching from the side and observing.”
He worked on getting his knee back in playing shape, at first hobbling, then learning to trust the repaired joint more and more. And he never lost his mental sharpness.
“My mind is definitely the sharpest it’s ever been,” Eronemo said. “I feel like I’m definitely back to where I was if not better.”
His experience has proven to be one of the key factors in the Pumas’ defense this season.
“His leadership and his experience we knew would be crucial,” Bird said. “He has been very vocal and been very good for guys who haven’t been at this level and this specific club. And his play on the field has been important, in training and in games.”
Not bad for a guy who at one point was sure if he’d be back with the club this season.
“I just wanted to play, and this is the best place to be playing day-in, day-out soccer,” Eronemo said. “I think this was the best decision for me.”