FRISCO, Texas – A bright start fizzled for the New England Revolution on Saturday night at Toyota Stadium, but there was a notable silver lining in the Revs’ 2-1 loss to FC Dallas.
Xavier Kouassi made his long-awaited MLS debut, starting and playing 79 minutes at the base of New England’s midfield diamond. It was a milestone appearance for the 27-year-old Ivorian, who was sidelined for more than a year after suffering a major right knee injury just days after signing with the Revolution last February.
Kouassi was thrilled to be back on the field, and it was clear that his teammates were just as excited to see him return, having watched his comeback unfold over the course of the past 13 months.
“I was extremely happy for him,” said Juan Agudelo. “I know how long he’s been out, how hard he’s been working to get back on the field, and I thought he did very well.”
Kouassi did so well, in fact, that head coach Jay Heaps left him on the field for longer than anticipated. After maxing out at 45 minutes in preseason, Kouassi played almost to the 80-minute mark on Saturday night before being replaced by Femi Hollinger-Janzen, showing no signs of fatigue.
“It was hard to take him out,” Heaps admitted. “I thought Kouassi did a really good job. He showed his physicality and he broke up plays.”
With Kouassi at holding midfield, Scott Caldwell was pushed to the right side in a slightly more advanced position. That left Kouassi to protect the backline, clog passing lanes, win loose balls and keep possession flowing through midfield.
Although FC Dallas eventually broke through with a pair of goals in the late stages – capitalizing on what Heaps called individual moments – Kouassi was largely solid in his role, working doggedly to break up attacks while harassing and harrying FCD in the middle of the park.
“He was outstanding,” said Caldwell. “Really, really good positionally and ball-winning. It’s great to see after waiting so long for him and seeing he’s healthy and back at it with the guys.”
Perhaps most importantly, more than 400 days since his last competitive appearance and coming off major knee surgery, there was no hesitation in Kouassi’s game.
“It looked like he wasn’t afraid to step into some challenges, as if he wasn’t afraid to get injured again,” said Agudelo. “It’s very bright for us to have a player like that back.”
Saturday night’s debut was a massive step for Kouassi, although some work does still remain for him to hit full stride. He’ll continue working towards that next weekend, when the Revs will belatedly open their home schedule against expansion side Minnesota United FC.
“Now it’s about just getting games underneath him and getting sharper,” said Heaps. “Hopefully he continues to build on that fitness.”