For a man who had overcome much in life, then 25-year-old Gerso Fernandes had decided to take another big step in early 2017. He had survived a troubled upbringing (as understated as that is), first in West Africa then in Lisbon, Portugal, to thrive as a professional soccer player in Portugal, playing in 150 matches in six years, most of those in the top division.
Now he was moving to the United States to play in MLS – a league quickly growing into, nay established, in the consciousness of those in power at upper European leagues – and to a Sporting Kansas City team that valued ambition and excellence and had the track record to prove it.
He ended 2017 as Sporting Kansas City’s Offensive Player of the Year, adding a dynamic and dangerous element to the Sporting KC attack, and had captured the Golden Boot as the team’s leading goal scorer, in addition to helping the team claim the U.S. Open Cup.
But to many, it wasn’t good enough. Gerso’s ability, and his designated player status, spoke to that. As did more.
Expected to be a key addition to juice up Sporting’s attack, Gerso displayed his now well-known baseball homerun swing goal celebration eight times with two assists (10 goals in all competitions), starting 26 of his 32 appearances in Sporting Kansas City’s 34 MLS games. Yet, three of those goals came in one night, albeit in an impressive hat trick scored in the second half of a May 17, 3-0 home victory over Seattle Sounders.
The production of the five other goals was spotty. The Guinea-Bissau native had two stretches of eight games in all competitions where he did not score a goal: one from July 1 thru August 12 and another in the final eight games of the season – during the all-important stretch run and playoffs – from September 20 on. And only one MLS goal came away from Children’s Mercy Park.
“When foreign players come into this league, you can’t just look at the time that they’ve been here. You have to look at where they come from, what their upbringing has been like, and those things that go with it because there is a lot to adjust to,” stated Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes.
September last, Gerso was able to share the details of his upbringing in The Kansas City Star. In it, the man Gerso calls his dad, the man who was vital in rescuing Gerso from an empty existence – Joao Carlos Cunha – is featured. And he featured heavily in helping Gerso cope with his dip in form that began with a shoulder separation injury suffered July 1 in a 1-1 home tie versus Portland Timbers that was followed by a second.
“After I got injured – first the right shoulder and then the left – I wasn’t playing very well. And that was a down[er],” Gerso stated via telephone Wednesday from Arizona where he and Sporting KC are prepping for the 2018 season.
“I talk[ed] a lot, almost every day, with my dad. He knew everything that was going on with me here. We talked a lot about my injuries and my momma and that I wasn’t playing very well,” Gerso revealed. “He was always giving me confidence: ‘Don’t give up. It sometimes happens, cannot be always the best, sometimes we go down. Be strong to go up again.’”
Gerso’s confidence seemed shaken. Sometimes absent was the always smile his teammates knew. Blunted were the ability to juke defenders dizzy, to create space with speed and quickness. And gone was what had grown so integral to his success.
MLSsoccer.com Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle highlighted the key to Sporting’s right winger effectiveness last May - Gerso is effective when “he’s more decisive when he gets the ball… he forces the issue [makes the defender/defense commit] by driving play forward. He is direct and pointed in his play.”
Fear of injury or a bruised confidence or both can lead to hesitation or indecisiveness, and they can obstruct natural talent.
Vermes was a constant encourager and teacher, Gerso’s teammates knew “I wasn’t the same Gerso they used to see” and they were always giving their hands “to help me get up.” Moments of brilliance flashed, but consistency still lacked.
2018 is Gerso take two. Though the challenges of adjustment in his play linger - “He is still, at times, in an adjustment phase. And there are other times when he completely gets it,” stated Vermes, reflecting on Gerso’s play so far this preseason while stating the caveat that it is difficult to accurately estimate players because, as of Tuesday, the team had only faced one MLS team thus far in preseason – the designated player had scored two goals in the first three preseason games.
“He’s coming along. He understands what he needs to do. But the league is a very physical league,” continued Vermes. “You have to understand that, and you have to be ready for that. At times, he’s a little tentative, or maybe just didn’t expect something. But I think he’s getting better and better with that.”
Gerso spent most of the summer in Portugal with family and friends and much work with Sporting KC’s trainers has strengthened the shoulders. But the new season brings additional challenges: Latif Blessing, his best friend on the team, was picked up by MLS debutant LAFC in the expansion draft and new international signings Johnny Russell and designated player Yohan Croizet will fight for playing time at Gerso’s right wing spot.
“It’s good because it makes the team better and it makes me better too,” said Gerso, whose contract runs through 2019 with an option for 2020. “They will challenge me; I will challenge them.”
Clearly, Gerso has the talent to be a major threat to MLS defenses, he has the environment to be successful, and he consistently exhibits the personality traits Vermes and his staff look for in all their players.
“But he always has a good attitude, gets along well with the team, and has always the right frame of mind in regards to the team and things like that,” said Vermes. “It doesn’t mean he always makes the right decisions, but that’s all of us. But if you are trying, I can be patient to help some of those other things progress.”
“I’m feeling good, and I’m looking forward for this season to be much better,” Gerso stated. “I know that I need to keep working and that I have to work harder than I worked last season.”
Gerso is strong to go up again.
A confident and decisive Gerso makes Sporting Kansas City a much more dangerous side. Hopefully that Gerso smile from the Gerso we all know will come out in many home run swing celebrations at and away from Children’s Mercy Park in 2018.