Leaving the field after playing 25 minutes in a scrimmage against the Union U19 team a little over a week ago, Bethlehem Steel FC Omar Holness didn’t look happy.
Sitting down on the bench with a trainer, Holness could be overheard expressing his displeasure with only getting a short shift with his teammates on the field at Power Training Complex. The passion in his voice was unmistakable and yet understandable considering the lengthy journey the 24-year-old has taken getting back to the pitch.
“There are guys with the team much smarter than I am in terms of this injury,” Holness said later that day in a phone interview. “They weigh what I can and cannot do and sometimes I do get frustrated but I do think their quelling of my eagerness is pretty much the right thing at this point.”
Holness returned to full training a couple weeks ago and head coach Brendan Burke recently said he would be available for selection as soon as the weekend coming up.
“He has been great in our environment and is going to make a big difference on our team when we get him out there,” Burke said. “He brings a great intensity and is sound technically and understands the game with a high IQ. There is a lot that Omar brings to the game that will add to the group.”
A former University of North Carolina standout drafted fifth overall after his junior year by Real Salt Lake in 2016, Holness went down with a ruptured ACL last summer and only made it part of the way through his rehab process when he had his option declined by the club at season’s end.
He finished his career in Utah making 18 appearances for the first team and nine for the Real Monarchs in USL over two years.
Lucas Muller, a senior writer for RSL Soapbox, said Holness underperformed in his time with the organization and wasn’t arelly in the team’s plans moving forward.
“His position was too far down the depth chart so keeping him on didn’t really make sense for the team or Omar’s development,” Miller said. “He has the potential to become a fantastic player (and one RSL may regret letting go of) so a move where he can get significant minutes should be a help in his growth. Had he been an academy product, I think the team would’ve kept him, but there were other players who out preformed him in his position.”
Signing with Steel in early January meant the door to getting back to MLS and the Reggae Boyz would still be open, but it also meant joining an organization where he’d have to wait another four months to make good on all of the promise that earned him his first senior national team call-up while still just a sophomore at UNC and a Generation adidas deal to leave school early the following year.
“Immediately when I came here I drew close to the guys who I knew would push me,” Holness said.
Understandably, he’s anxious to repay his new teammates and the organization for the chance they took on him and the support shown through the final stages of a grueling recovery process.
“There have been mixed emotions,” Holness said. “I’m kind of eager to get back but at the same time frustrated. It’s been so long. It’s been such a long process. It’s just the passion I have for the game and the passion I have to win pretty much outweighs that frustration.”
Support has also come from his girlfriend and family off the field and within the organization from fellow countrymen Andre Blake and Cory Burke, who Holness said have provided a morale boost and made his recovery more manageable.
“I surround myself with positive people,” he said.
Adjusting to a new city has also been part of the process of getting his career back on track, but the way he talks about his new home it sounds like it’s been of the easiest parts of the transition.
“Personally, I have really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia,” he said. “The Eagles winning the Super Bowl, Villanova winning and just to see the emotion and the people of Philadelphia rally around those teams really speaks to me on the city as a whole.”
Like the first team, the Steel have been on a skid of late — a loss and two draws — after winning the first game of the season. Should Holness make it into the lineup the next time out, it will be against the defending USL Cup champions Louisville City on the road this Saturday.
What that will look like for Holness, who can play multiple positions in the midfield, will depend mostly on his fitness.
“The one thing that he is lacking and I think he would tell you is the wind, being able to push hard the way we want to play for more than 20 or 30 minutes and that will be the first big hurdle,” Burke said.
The first big hurdle after 10 months filled with nothing but hurdles.
“I really feel excited that this last part of it is pretty much here,” Holness said.