Hassani Dotson opens up on ACL injuries and fatherhood as he prepares for Minnesota United return

Hassani Dotson has been an invaluable member of head coach Adrian Heath’s team since Minnesota United picked him 31st overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

Drafted as a midfielder from Oregon State, Dotson made his first impression in MLS by filling both full-back positions. He made a quick first impression and scored stunning goals (branded as “cracker” from player and team alike) during his rookie year, although it was a relatively inconspicuous finish that sent Minnesota into the postseason for the first time in the club’s short league history. By 2020, Dotson transitioned to a more regular role in midfield than his Ozzie Alonso, a childhood idol turned teammate, faded into a rotational status. For country, Dotson was the standout in the US U-23 Olympic qualifier in 2021 before posting a career-best 2,371 minutes for the Loons with 2,371 minutes.

A tireless midfielder, many expected him to continue chasing opponents up and down in 2022 while improving his game. Instead, he spent most of the year watching from his couch while practicing on the indoor grass court after suffering a non-contact injury at the team’s training facility, the National Sports Center.

“When I tore (my ACL), I felt something on my shin and I was really nervous,” Dotson said the athlete at the team’s preseason headquarters in Indian Wells, California. “I was like, ‘Wait, there’s no way I ripped something down there with that noise,’ you know? So I just instinctively grabbed my knee but they helped me get into a workout room and I felt fine. I walked on it, but I was more scared of knowing what happened.”

To his dismay, it wasn’t a tear in Dotson’s MCL or meniscus, but in his right ACL. The artificial surface accomplished what few opposing midfielders have accomplished in Dotson’s four MLS seasons and took him out of the game.

Dotson should start regularly last season in a crowded midfield, a depth table that still includes former US international Wil Trapp and Honduran internationals Kervin Arriaga and Joseph Rosales. After just seven games (all 90-minute shifts), Dotson was sidelined for the rest of the year.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Dotson said. “Even when you read the lyrics ‘Hassani Dotson tore his cruciate ligament’ it sounds like such a big deal and I still can’t quite believe I tore it but the process was a little easier than I expected . It’s frustrating, but I’m recovering from it.

“I don’t feel as bad as I thought I did. It’s maybe because of all the new science we have and our medical team and whatnot. It’s a big deal, but less of a big deal compared to maybe 20 years ago.”

Dotson quickly quoted Dr. Aimee Klapach who has served as such the team’s primary orthopedic surgeon since 2017 for helping make him more “soothing.” In early 2018, Minnesota natives Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay also tore their ACLs within a few months. While these procedures preceded his time in Minnesota, they gave Dotson additional confidence in the team’s ability to rehabilitate knee ligament injuries.

“I talked to Ethan a little bit about it,” Dotson said. “My friend (Portland Timbers midfielder) Eryk Williamson ripped it up the year before so I was able to ask a couple of guys a few questions. And then (MNUFC 2 defender Jason) Ramos yanked his just after me so I was able to help him.”

Players selected in the SuperDraft will tell you that just creating an MLS roster takes a lot of work – and a little luck. To date, Dotson remains the only player not to have been selected in the first round for Minnesota since the club’s debut. For him, the more than three years from the day he was called up until his injury required enormous diligence and drive.

“Athletes who are professionals, like they’re going, going, going, non-stop,” he said.

Going from a fiery competitor on the pitch to a member of the season-ending injury list came as a shock to the system.

“When I was a year out, I almost felt like… how do I explain that?” Dotson said while absentmindedly massaging his right knee. “I wasn’t like a teammate in the dressing room. I changed my clothes, I said hello to the guys, but I felt like I was in a different role. I’ve been more of a supportive member if anyone wanted to vent or check out ideas as I’ve seen the game from above or something. I was more in that role. It takes away the competitiveness a bit.”

Dotson has gotten pretty good at avoiding the what-if games.

He did not focus on whether he could have built on that 2021 performance with the U-23s to accommodate US Men’s World Cup roster considerations. He couldn’t imagine how last year’s playoff loss to FC Dallas could have gone with his number 31 jersey traveling in midfield.

Instead, he found clarity: appreciating the moments as they came and after they passed.

“I was just trying to figure out what else I like outside of football,” Dotson said. “I took a deep breath mostly because I think I’m so focused on winning that I was like, ‘Take some time for yourself and really appreciate all the things you had before you got hurt.

“Everyone gets nervous. Everyone has these high expectations of themselves when they play, and I think for me it was more about[telling me that]when you come back, just knowing that you only have one career. You never know if that will happen again, so make sure you don’t regret it when you’re done.”

While not walking the field, Dotson noted that he was keeping an eye on another very important sign. His wife Petra gave birth to Gia, the couple’s first child. As his daughter grows, it offers a different perspective on life off the job.

“I would have missed so many things,” Dotson said. “Even though she was just away from them the two weeks we were in Florida for the preseason, she took her first steps. I got a video the other day, she just zooms around like she’s taking 15 steps at a time and holding stuff.

“Just the little things you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t there. I think when she starts communicating back a little bit – she doesn’t say a word, but even when she’s upset she wrinkles her nose and purses her lips. She makes little noises. I think seeing her personality come out more, that’s been pretty exciting.”

Of course, a competitor can’t keep this side of themselves under wraps forever. When players began reporting for the preseason in January, he joked that his family was willing to put him back in a team environment.

The question was whether his knee was ready or not.

Dotson was caught off guard when a team coach’s first request to him was to kick a ball. As a right footer, he wasn’t sure how his leg would feel even on a simple pass. As he revisits the moment, he closes one eye and appears to be preparing for pain weeks after that moment.

“No pain, no nothing,” says Dotson with a smile that has endeared him to many Loons fans. “The next one, I just kicked as hard as I could.”

From then on, he was gradually able to get back into contact exercises. In the team’s final preseason game over the weekend, he made his long-awaited return after being handed 15 minutes. He went without setbacks and helped further boost confidence that he can be back to full fitness for the start of the regular season.

Last year, Arriaga was one of the standout additions to the Loons. The Honduran pads his lanky frame with competitiveness, having received a yellow card in 8 of his 24 games. If the two can link up in midfield, it could give Dotson a kindred spirit to take some of the mileage off his knees.

“Even though I’m watching from the outside right now, I’ve played a few games with Kervin. He’s got great tools,” Dotson said. “I’ve watched his game enough to know what he likes to do and we’ll just work that out.

“I think especially with what’s happening right now it’s going to be so important to see how we can come together and get that chemistry.”

Dotson is also versatile and could take on a more creative attacking role in the absence of star Emanuel Reynoso. It would require a further change in approach. After jumping in all over the field for the first three years, Dotson is more confident than ever that his best role would be the box-to-box option.

But as always for him, the team – and his pursuit of silver after coming close in the finals of the 2019 US Open Cup and 2020 Western Conference – comes first.

“I think for me the biggest focus is to feel completely like myself and then take my opportunity when I get it,” Dotson said. “I just want to be a big player for the team, but I do that.”

(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)


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