BRADENTON, Fla. – Kevin Alston couldn’t help but shake his head and smile when asked how he’s feeling now compared to last preseason.
“Way better,” he said. “Not just physically, but mentally.”
One year ago, Alston was with the Revolution in Casa Grande, Ariz., struggling through two-a-day workouts and dealing with unexplained aches and pains while wondering why he was falling behind the pace of his teammates. With no answers, it was as taxing on his mind as it was his body.
But Alston’s experience as 2014 preseason camp gets underway could not be any more different. Answers came last April and eventually led to treatment, and while being diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia was no picnic, his path to recovery has him feeling stronger than ever.
“Last preseason was frustrating just going through that daily grind where I just didn’t know what was going on,” Alston said. “Now, my mind’s in a better place. I’m happy to be out here, happy to be back with everybody and I feel good to match.”
Alston likened 2014 to a clean slate. Last year’s triumphant return to the field just four months after a cancer diagnosis defined him as a fighter – not to mention earned him the title of MLS Comeback Player of the Year – but there were obstacles to overcome even after his return in late July.
Trying to break into an established backline in the middle of a playoff race proved difficult, while he struggled to regain his sharpness after an extended period away from the game. Although he started the playoff-clinching victory over the Columbus Crew to close the regular season, Alston totaled just five appearances following his return and missed the playoffs through injury.
The joy of being back on the field so soon after dealing with a serious illness tempered any disappointment, but there was no question; Alston wanted a return to the form which saw him earn a pair of U.S. National Team call-ups and an MLS All-Star nod in 2010.
“When you come back in the middle or towards the end of a season, it’s a learning curve,” he said. “Everybody’s in form, they’ve been playing, their rhythm’s down and it’s kind of like you’re starting back at preseason just trying to get the rust and the kinks out.
“Now, having this whole offseason to prepare and come back with a clean slate, it’s good to start fresh.”
And Alston did spend the offseason preparing, only returning home to the Washington, D.C. area for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of his time was spent in New England, training as often as possible with strength and conditioning coach Nick Downing in an attempt to get his body in tip-top shape.
The hard work appears to have paid off. Alston has looked energetic through the first few days of preseason camp, and his efforts have already caught the eye of head coach Jay Heaps.
“I’m thrilled with the way Kevin’s come into preseason. He is flying,” said Heaps, who also noted that Alston never really had a chance to settle after returning last year. “The way we feel is that last year is a distant memory. I think he’s hit the ground absolutely running from where last season ended and into this preseason. We’re excited about where Kevin is today.”
Alston’s excited about where he is today, too, particularly compared to where he was 365 days ago. But he’s far from satisfied, and intends to spend every day continuing his upward trajectory.
“Every day I just want to get a little bit better,” Alston said. “I’m just trying to reach my full potential.”