In the sixth edition of this behind-the-scenes series, 22-year-old Sporting midfielder Felipe Hernandez reflects on recent wins over Real Salt Lake and Vancouver in the MLS is Back Tournament, the close bond between the Homegrown Players, his favorite moments in the Disney World bubble thus far and plenty more.
As Sporting Kansas City prepared for its MLS Tournament group stage campaign in Orlando, Manager Peter Vermes told Hernandez to be ready. His time would come.
Before our first game of the tournament, Peter was telling me to be prepared and that I might sub in at either the 6 (holding midfielder) or the 8 (central midfielder). All week, he was constantly telling me to be ready and to know all of the assignments at both positions. The day before our game against Real Salt Lake on July 22, he told me, “Hey, you’re going in tomorrow at some point. I don’t know when, but at some point you’re going to step onto the field. Just be ready.” I’m always ready, so I was looking forward to the opportunity.
At halftime of the game, Kerry Zavagnin talked to me about a few tactical and set piece assignments. The second half started and as the subs were warming up, Peter shouted my name. The coaches just wanted me to bring energy to the team, stay organized defensively and play my game. Peter was confident in me, so he just told me to do what I can defensively. Be tough to play against and see the game out.
A few minutes after entering the game, Hernandez made an impressive move along the right channel to beat a Real Salt Lake defender and create a scoring chance for Sporting. The play drew compliments from ESPN commentators Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman.
Graham Zusi had the ball and I originally made a diagonal run. Zus ended up playing the pass out wide, so I had to check back a little bit to drag RSL’s center back with me. I know he was on my back and that if I shifted my hips a little bit, he would maybe bite. I like to do that move a lot where I shift my hips and then go the other way. I was able to get around him and advance forward, and we almost got a goal out of it.
Overall, I was pleased with how the game went for us. You can’t argue with a 2-0 result. It was also awesome to see Gianluca Busio start that game. It’s always exciting to see the young guys play. They’re my best friends, so we’re always happy for each other when we get our opportunities. I thought I did pretty well defensively and created a good chance when I went in. There are always things you can work on and improve on, but I thought it was a decent shift.
In training, Hernandez has been playing in both the central midfield and holding midfield positions. Until recently, Hernandez had never played the 6 before—not even during his time with the Sporting KC Academy or Sporting KC II.
I just started playing the 6 a week before we came down to Orlando. I had never played the 6 before. They put me in that position for a few trainings, and I kind of stuck there. I remember the first day it happened. I was in a training group with Roger Espinoza and Gadi Kinda. I filled in as the 6 and let Roger and Gadi take the 8 and the 10. I had a good training session that day, so the coaches kept me there.
Ever since, I’ve been getting reps at the 6 and the 8. I didn’t see it coming, but it’s been good for me. The 6 is an extremely important position. As Peter says, you have to be the insurance guy. You’ve got to cover everyone, be secure and you can’t give the ball away.
After beating Real Salt Lake in a 9 a.m. local time kickoff, Sporting would meet Vancouver Whitecaps FC in a Round of 16 clash that kicked off at 11 p.m. local time.
Preparing for the 11 p.m. against Vancouver game was extremely difficult—much harder than our 9 a.m. game against RSL. You have an entire day to think about the game and prepare. When we learned we would be playing at 11 p.m., I was like, “No way. No chance.” It’s tough because you have all day to wait around. You don’t want to stay in bed because that’ll just mess with your body and your muscles will be all stiff. You also can’t get up and go run around because of the same issue.
It was difficult to manage that, but we ended up having a little pool session where we did some stretching at 2 or 3 p.m. We also did a little bit of stretching in the gym. Other than that, it was a lot of watching movies and chilling out.
Sporting dominated Vancouver from wire to wire, but the Whitecaps held on to force penalty kicks after a scoreless draw through 90 minutes.
I was warming up in the second half and I told Daniel, “It feels like we’re down a goal right now.” We were pushing so hard and playing well, but we couldn’t find a goal. Everyone was getting frustrated because their goalie was making all kinds of saves. It felt like we were losing, when in reality we were tied. I was a little worried because I’ve watched enough soccer to see that sometimes, when one team is dominating and pushing and pushing and pushing, all of the sudden the other team will score on the counterattack. You see that happen in other games all the time, so I was just thinking, “Please don’t let that happen to us.”
Vancouver had a chance early in the second half when their forward took a shot from the top of the box. I was on the sideline warming up at that end of the field. I saw Tim Melia stand there frozen because the ball took a big deflection and rolled just wide of the post. It all happened in slow motion to me and I was just like, “Oh my God.”
When we went to penalty kicks, I was honestly so confident Timmy would get the job done. Vancouver did have a really good goalie, but I knew he was young. I knew Tim would pull through for us, and you saw him guess right on every single penalty kick they took. That just shows what he can do and shows the type of keeper he is.
We’ve played mini golf twice now, where we split up into two teams and go head-to-head. It’s me, Wan Kuzain and Cam Duke versus Daniel Salloi, Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey. My team won the first time we played and then they beat us in round two. We’ll have to settle it with game three before we leave.
Mini golf has probably been my favorite free time activity we’ve done. Lots of laughs, too. The first time we went, Daniel’s very first shot on hole 1 took a few weird bounces and skipped into the pond. Later that night, Duke was about to take a shot to tie the game, and it was a really short, easy shot. He was kind of messing around and guys on the other team were trying to throw him off. He accidentally tapped the ball with his putter and everybody went crazy. It was pretty heartbreaking since I was on his team, but it was hilarious—one of those moments where you just had to be there.
Video games are big here, of course. I’ve been playing Pro Clubs mode on FIFA with Jaylin, Busio and Duke. We all play on the same team. Kuzain’s really good at FIFA, obviously, so he plays online with a group of his friends. We play against each other a lot, and it’s usually pretty competitive. Definitely lots of yelling going on.
We’ve also been playing a game on our phones where it asks you a question and you have a certain amount of time to answer it. If you answer correctly, it goes to someone else and they have to answer a question. Seven or eight of us will be playing that at a time. We’ve done that a few nights in a row now.
The other day I watched The Benchwarmers, which is one of my favorite movies. I’ve been telling Busio we need to watch Toy Story, but for some reason he’s not a big fan of it. Toy Story has to be my favorite Disney Pixar movie, for sure. And Woody has to be my favorite Disney character.
The MLS is Back Tournament experience has brought Sporting’s Homegrown Players closer than ever.
The Homegrown Players on this team have always been really close. A lot of us have been playing together since our Academy days. We’ve been good friends for a long time, but this trip has brought us even closer. When you see the same people every minute of the day for a month, you have to stick together. It’s a good group of guys and I’m happy to be a part of it.
One of the cool things we’ve been doing together is watching the Sporting KC II games. Every time they play, we start buzzing. Kuzain and Jaylin’s hotel rooms are connected by a middle door, so we go in there, watch the Sporting KC II games and pretty much scream the whole time. It’s a lot of fun watching our friends compete.
A few days before Sporting’s first match in the MLS is Back Tournament, a member of the club’s traveling delegation tested positive. In the week that followed, players were limited to the training fields and their hotel rooms.
When we had our first positive case here at the hotel, it was tough. You don’t really think about COVID the same way until someone you know or someone you’ve been around has it. Then you start worrying about it in a different way. It’s kind of scary at first because you’re worried you might get it or other people on the team might get it. The two or three days after that happened, it felt like we were just waiting for our results and hoping for the best.
It wasn’t an easy situation, but I think the team handled it really well. We’ve all done a good job wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from people who aren’t a part of our traveling group. Once we got to seven or 10 days without any more positive results, it really helped us out mentally. Now you aren’t thinking about it all the time. There aren’t any more concerns about missing training or missing games. Once we got to 13 or 14 days, we knew we were in a good place. We just have to keep doing what we were doing in terms of staying safe.
Hernandez is still in the early stages of his professional career, but he feels strongly that nothing will compare to the special, unique circumstances at the MLS is Back Tournament.
This is for sure the top of the list in terms of wildest experiences I’ve had in soccer. It’s different, it’s unique, and it’s something we probably won’t do ever again. But it’s a lot of fun, too. At the end of the day, we’re training, playing games and enjoying our free time together. You can’t ask for much more. It’s better than sitting at home and not being able to do anything.
There are definitely parts about Kansas City that I do miss. The first thing I think of is food. I miss Chipotle, I miss Chic-fil-A. You just can’t beat those places. I miss my girlfriend, too. We’ve been together for two or two and a half years, so going this long without seeing your best friend is tough.
At the end of the day, we feel good about the situation we’re in, and we’re really excited for our next game against Philadelphia. The stakes are obviously high, but we’re approaching this as normal. We’ll prepare the same way and we won’t change the way we play. We’re just looking forward to getting out there in a tournament scenario. If you lose, you’re done. That’s always a fun situation and always gets people going.
As Sporting prepares for Thursday’s pivotal quarterfinal match, Hernandez has a message for the club’s supporters.
We thank our fans for everything and love their support. Obviously they can’t be here with us in Florida, but we have a few Cauldron banners hanging by our bench every game. We always appreciate their love and it’s great to see what they’ve been doing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We know they’re supporting us, and we’re doing everything we can to bring back a trophy.