Pacific’s Bustos on ’emotional’ recovery journey before game vs. Toronto FC: ‘I needed to make sure I came back’

August 2021 was shaping up to be a heck of a month for Marco Bustos.

Pacific FC were climbing the table with a six-game unbeaten streak, and Bustos himself had emerged as the frontrunner for the CPL’s MVP award. Both player and club alike were picking up steam, with a monumental Canadian Championship clash against intra-provincial Major League Soccer foes (and Bustos’ own former club) Vancouver Whitecaps drawing ever nearer on the horizon.

As is too often the case in the cruel world of sports, though, it all changed in an instant: Just over a week before the Whitecaps game, Bustos’ knee gave out. For the first time all season, he sat out a match — a 2-1 loss to Cavalry FC — in hope that a quick spell of rest might set things right and allow him to play midweek against Vancouver.

It wasn’t to be, though. Bustos watched from the stands on August 26 as his teammates delivered the most remarkable victory in club history — a 4-3 win to see them into the next round.

Speaking to on Tuesday from his hotel room in Toronto, where a now-healthy Bustos and Pacific have set up shop before their Canadian Championship semifinal against Toronto FC, the 25-year-old opened up about his injury, and the grueling recovery process that kept him off the pitch for two months. He returned for Pacific on October 17 — exactly two months after his last game — and since then he’s had Wednesday’s clash against MLS opposition circled on the calendar.

RELATED: PREVIEW: Toronto FC vs. Pacific FC — 2021 Canadian Championship

Though he held out hope as long as possible that he might be ready in time to play the Whitecaps, Bustos revealed even getting into his car was difficult in the days leading up to it, such was the pain in his knee. When at last he came to terms with the fact he would miss out on the biggest game in Pacific’s history to date, he was predictably devastated.

Bustos’ brother Michael had only just arrived on Vancouver Island to take in a few games at Starlight Stadium, but now the pair would be watching from the sidelines together.

“Showing up to the stadium, I walked into [coach Pa-Modou Kah’s] office just to see how he was doing, show I was there for support for the team and all of that, I just broke down in tears,” Bustos recalled. “Just wanting to be out there so bad, and obviously against my old team, and not being able to was… was emotionally tough. But he grabbed me and reassured me that things happen for a reason, this was your destiny and you’re going to come back stronger. You’re going to make a comeback at the end of the season. And here I am right now.”

So began the process. Crushed to be deprived of his chance to play against Vancouver, Bustos turned his focus to rehabilitating his knee, vowing to get back on the pitch for Pacific in the 2021 season.

“In my head I said, ‘What’s everything that I need to do? What can I be doing?'” Bustos said. “I needed to make sure I came back, but not only come back and play at 60 or 70%, but come back and when I’m back in the mix, I’m still there.”

The process was quite intensive: fitness drills on the training pitch, strengthening exercises, plenty of physiotherapy. Bustos worked closely with a few of Pacific’s academy coaches on Vancouver Island, including assistant coach James Merriman’s brother Chris, looking for incremental improvements every day.

After the misfortune that cursed him with injury, Bustos had some better luck in his recovery, suffering no real setbacks along the way despite the extensive process.

“When I say every day, people that don’t really know me too well, they have no idea,” Bustos explained. “The real ones, the close people have to make me take a break. So that was me, every day just getting at it, doing everything I could. I had a few different rehab places I’d get sent to and they would take care of me.

“You know, in those two months, I’ve never spent so much money on gas, which was incredible. And the gas ain’t cheap on the Island.”

(Pacific FC/CPL)
(Pacific FC/CPL)

For their part, Bustos’ Pacific teammates did well to illuminate the light at the end of the tunnel for him. After beating the Whitecaps, they remained in good form to cement themselves in the CPL playoff picture. They advanced yet again in the Canadian Championship to line up Wednesday’s date with Toronto FC.

Thanks to all that, Bustos knew: If he could indeed recover in time from his injury, there would be big games at the end of the season for him to play. He could still have the chance to face an MLS team, or to try and win a league championship.

“Going back to my time when I was injured, I did a workout with [Pacific FC CEO] Rob Friend. We spoke a bit, I told him, that to everyone around me, I’ll be back for this game [against TFC]. That game was like my timeline — I didn’t really go on a timeline, just because you never know what’s gonna happen in your recovery process, but I knew, whether I had one leg, no legs, I was playing this game. Or at least be involved in it.”

Clearly, the motivation was effective. Bustos got a little more time to get back to full speed thanks to the semifinal round being pushed back several weeks from its original date, and speaking on the eve of the match against TFC he’s back to his role as perhaps one of Pacific’s most important players.

It’s fitting, then, that the story of Bustos’ recovery will culminate at BMO Field, in the Canadian Championship against TFC. In 2014, he — then 18 years old — made his professional debut at the same venue for the Whitecaps against Toronto. Then-‘Caps boss Carl Robinson elected to play a handful of young prospects in that Voyageurs Cup semifinal away leg (including current Cavalry FC ‘keeper Marco Carducci), against a TFC squad that featured such names as Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, and Dwayne De Rosario. Looking back at that game — a 2-1 loss for Vancouver — Bustos remarked on just how much he’s changed since then.

“I was a very young player, and you saw what it takes to be a top pro, to play at this level,” Bustos said. “It was just a really cool experience for me. On an individual level, was I ready? Probably not. But am I ready today? I believe I am. That’s just looking from hindsight.”

At 25 years old, Bustos is of course a much different player and person now. He himself will tell you that, talented though he was, there was a time earlier in his career where he didn’t work hard enough to remain at the level he wanted — “Unfortunately, I had to drop a level from MLS to realize that,” he admitted.

He’s been open about that growth process the past couple years, of course. He’s been open, as well, with the fact that he has aspirations of returning to a higher level of the game after proving himself in the CPL. Having become a star and a leader for this Pacific team, Bustos is well aware of the opportunity presented by Wednesday’s clash against TFC, for him as well as all of his teammates — as is always the case when CPL teams take on MLS clubs.

No player’s career is made or broken by one game, but nights like these are what all the hard work in training is for.

“These are the moments that you get lucky with, the moments where you shine,” Bustos said. “When you’ve worked hard and you know you’ve done everything possible to seize an opportunity like this, it should come to you instead of you having to chase the game. I’ve worked my socks off, especially the last two years with great detail in my game, and what better game to showcase myself and showcase Pacific Football Club, against one of the best teams in North America? Toronto FC, who have obviously great players, good Canadian players, some big name DPs.

“I’ve never shied away from saying I want to reach a higher level again. These are just the moments where you get an opportunity like this and this is where you need to show that you’re ready to play at this level, go against this calibre of defenders and this calibre of team, and I can pick a handful of guys who deserve an opportunity… You never know who’s watching, who’s in the stands, who’s on the other end of OneSoccer on the TV. The football world is very small, and one team or one scout could be watching someone on TFC tomorrow and for all we know, someone on Pacific FC catches their eye and there you go. Sold for a million-plus.”

July 10, 2021. Pacific FC vs York United FC. First-Half. Marco Bustos of Pacific FC celebrates his first-half goal against York United FC. (CPL)
July 10, 2021. Pacific FC vs York United FC. First-Half. Marco Bustos of Pacific FC celebrates his first-half goal against York United FC. (CPL)

Wednesday promises to be a special occasion: Two clubs will go out to throw their absolute best at one another in pursuit of a place in a final. TFC want to end their dismal season with a trophy, and Pacific want to write another happy chapter in their history — and perhaps make it two special nights in a row for the Canadian Premier League.

On a personal level, too, Bustos has been waiting for this game a long time. It may not be against the Whitecaps specifically, but he’ll at last have the chance to play an MLS side that he’s wanted for years. Plus, his brother will finally get to see him play; he and his mother have made the trip from Winnipeg to watch the game from BMO Field.

The last few months have been an emotional roller-coaster for Bustos. At last, though, the highs are replacing the lows. Things look much rosier now that he’s back on the pitch, but he’s gained a little perspective along the way.

“Embrace it,” Bustos said of a night like Wednesday. “This could be the first and last time you ever play at BMO Field, because you never know what tomorrow brings. You know, just enjoy the opportunity. Enjoy the bright lights, because there’s not many times in your career that you get an opportunity like this.”