BURNABY, B.C. - Tom Heinemann reached Major League Soccer the hard way — and he has not had any easy time staying, either.
The 25-year-old striker is trying to revive his MLS career this season with the Vancouver Whitecaps after missing all but five minutes of the 2012 campaign as a member of the Columbus Crew because of a knee injury.
"It's kind of crazy," he said of his road to the pros after a Whitecaps workout this week. "I've been cut by a team before, released by a team before in the past, had a knee injury. You just learn to move on, to adapt to your next opportunity.
"You just have to find it within yourself to put (your difficulties) off our back and keep moving forward and pressing on towards the goal."
The Whitecaps signed Heinemann to a two-year contract (one year plus an option) in January. Vancouver claimed him off waivers from Columbus after the Crew oversaw his rehab, but chose to release him rather than give him a third chance.
But it's a bit of a wonder he got a first one with the Ohio-based squad.
"I actually got cut by my high school team," said Heinemann, a St. Louis native. "I never played varsity high school soccer. I got cut by my club team in high school, except they ended up inviting me back after they needed some players."
Heinemann was a walk-on with his Rockhurst University team in Kansas City, Mo., opting for the small NCAA Division II school because he wanted to study business in a place near his hometown, and he knew the school's soccer club had a no-cut policy.
"I didn't have anything to lose," he said.
That's right, everybody stayed, but only the best played. Heinemann made the playing roster, but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee that he would spend last season rehabilitating. So he was a medical red-shirt his second season.
But he came back and excelled, earning Division II All-America status in his sophomore and junior years.
While in college, he also played in the USL Premier Development League for the St. Louis Lions, scoring 35 goals in 36 games over three seasons.
Columbus brought him in on a trial in 2009, but he could not stick and wound up playing for the Charleston Battery of USL 1 after he won a spot on a tryout. Ironically, his first pro game was against the Whitecaps, in April of that year, while Vancouver was still toiling in lower tiers.
Heinemann remained with Charleston in 2010 and gained the attention of Martin Rennie, now Vancouver's coach, who was guiding the Carolina RailHawks of the North American Soccer League at the time. After helping Charleston win a championship, Heinemann signed with Carolina and toiled under Rennie for the balance of the season.
"We almost won the title," said Heinemann. "We lost in the final. We made a good run."
In January of 2011, he received a second chance from the Crew and was signed to a contract. He suited up for 29 games, starting 12, in 2011 and scored nine goals.. He played five minutes of the opening game of the 2012 MLS season, but was sidelined the next week in a friendly.
"We had a bye week and we played a college team (West Virginia), and that's when I got hurt, middle of March," he said. "I had a surgery April 6, last year. ... I just tore some articular cartilage and required a microfracture surgery."
After Crew team doctor Pete Edwards performed the orthopedic procedure at the Ohio Therapy Institute in Columbus, Heinemann tried — figuratively — to take the setback to his career in stride.
"When you get an injury and you're out for an extended period of time, it can be a crushing piece of news, but I think that everything happens for a reason though," said Heinemann. "I believe that firmly, and God's in control of everything. It's just part of my makeup, what I believe as an individual.
"So at that point, I just looked at it as: This is what I'm faced with, and started adapting and trying to overcome it, focusing day in and day out on getting my body stronger and getting healthier and doing the right things to prepare for this year."
He spent nine weeks on crutches and then, for the next three to four months, trained five times a week — three days on land and two on water — to strengthen the knee without hurting the cartilage.
"The procedure is a little bit tricky in the sense that, if you rush (the recovery), it could affect me ... for me for four or five years. So, all along, I've been trying to be as patient as possible, take extra time, so everything heals properly."
It was a lengthy process that required a careful training regimen.
"Around six or seven months, I could start to ramp up. I started jogging in an ultra-gravity machine, where you're actually jogging at about 20 per cent of your weight. I'd move up to 50 per cent of my weight," said Heinemann. "Then I'd move up to 80 per cent of my weight and finally, fully, actually jogging on 100 per cent of my body weight. Then I changed to a treadmill.
"So it's kind of a long process. The load that you're putting on your knee is kind of evolving as time goes on. The whole thought behind that: As time goes on, the bone marrow in my knee is becoming more compact and stronger and tougher."
Now, he has a chance to help rehabilitate a Vancouver offence that has scored only 35 goals in each of the past two seasons.
The six-foot-four Heinemann brings height — and skill in the air — to a Whitecaps front third that features mainly small speedsters.
"He's a different type of striker than the ones that we've got and that gives us a different option in games, whether it be coming off the bench or, in different games, maybe, starting," said Rennie.
The Whitecaps coach said Heinemann dealt with his injury well, is psychologically strong and will "come back even stronger."
"He's looking strong and (offering) the same physical presence he had before, he has now," said Rennie. "But also, just the enthusiasm and positive energy he brings to the group is infectious and I really like that about him, too."
In other words, Heinemann is not lamenting his release from the Crew after his long rehab or the uncertainty he has faced in his career, chalking everything up to fate and the usual life of a pro.
"When one door closes, another opens. ... This is kind of part of the business, especially the player movement — everything in this league," he said.
"You've gotta stay wherever you can."
Notes: The Whitecaps departed Wednesday for a pre-season games against MLS, lower-tier pro and college teams in South Carolina and North Carolina.