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Healthy Christian Dean returns to pro soccer with Charlotte Independence
Two-year break adjusted defender's attitude
 
Published Sunday, June 6, 2021
by Ashley Mahoney

PHOTO | TROY HULL
Charlotte Independence teammates Kevin Riascos and Junior Etou embrace after Etou's goal in their 1-0 win Saturday against Tampa Bay at the Sportsplex at Matthews. 

MATTHEWS—Putting mental health first led Christian Dean back to professional soccer.

The Charlotte Independence defender retired in 2018 after four years in MLS in Vancouver and Chicago as the physical and mental stress became too much. After four years of injuries and expectations, the job became a drag.

“I can’t say no fault to the Chicago organization, honestly,” Dean said. “I just couldn’t wake myself up and be happy to go in and train day-to-day. I wasn’t there and wasn’t happy on the field. I had to take a step back and look at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t a place I really wanted to be, and it didn’t look like there was really any way to make myself happy. I had to take a step back.”

After sitting out two seasons, Dean came out of retirement and signed with the Charlotte Independence earlier this year. You would never know he’d been away from the game or why he chose to step away. He credits Independence head coach and general manager Mike Jeffries and assistants Brian Haynes and Nate Walzer with helping him adjust.

“It has kind of been an easy transition back into playing,” Dean said. “The coaching staff has made it really easy. The back line has made it super easy.”

Vancouver Whitecaps FC selected Dean third overall in the first round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft after his collegiate career at California-Berkeley. He struggled with injuries: twice breaking the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in as many years, a high-ligament ankle injury to tearing his right MCL in 2016 that caused him to miss the entire season. Dean landed in Chicago via trade in August 2017 and made five appearances with the Fire.

At 6-foot-3, the 28-year-old left back is a formidable presence in Charlotte’s back three, combining well with defenders Hugh Roberts and Kevin Riascos. Roberts is the only returning defender from last season.

“It is a very experienced back line, which helps a lot,” Dean said. “The age of us is a little older. We are all more mature. We have played at this level for a while and higher levels. With [goalkeeper] Brandon [Miller] behind us as well that gives us a little boost of confidence. Having [midfielders] Brandt [Bronico] and Junior [Etou] sitting in the middle, it just holds it down even more defensively for us.”

Said Roberts: “Dean has been tremendous, having the right attitude, wanting to win, wanting to listen to me, wanting to be a part of this team and help us evolve.”

Dean played with Bronico in Chicago and had a preexisting friendship with Independence midfielder Noah Paravicini as well.

Dean considered coming out of retirement in 2020, but COVID-19 forced him to press pause.

“It is just a game that I always loved,” he said. “I just needed to step away to really find myself. My mental health is something that I take really seriously, and I was not in a happy place mentally. Now I have really found myself and understand who I am as a person. Being here in Charlotte has really helped.”

Said Roberts: “If you are not there mentally you are not going to play good. If you are not there mentally you are not going to practice. You are not going to want to be there. It is almost like a trickle-down effect. I give him a lot of kudos for him stepping away and then coming back, because he has been a great asset to us.”

Dean started four of Charlotte’s five matches, missing the 2-1 loss to Miami due to red card suspension (two yellows the previous week against Pittsburgh). Charlotte has three clean sheets with him in the starting lineup and has conceded three goals.

“The back three with Kevin, Hugh and Christian are forming a really good partnership,” Jeffries said. “They are all very good one-v-one defensively. They are all athletic and can cover spaces in behind. It allows us to keep pretty good shape, and they are all capable of playing out of the back as well.”

Charlotte (3-2) upset Atlantic Division leaders Tampa Bay Rowdies (5-1, 15 points) 1-0 on Saturday, with Etou converting a penalty in the first half. The Jacks, who are third in the Atlantic Division with nine points, host Hartford Athletic at the Sportsplex at Matthews on June 13 at 7 p.m.

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