Since coming on for an injured Remi Walter in the 41st minute of Sporting Kansas City’s match with Austin FC on June 12, 23-year-old Felipe Hernandez has started the next three matches. His dynamic, tenacious play has people talking. The growth in just one year for Hernandez – the source of which he explains later – is substantial for the midfielder who was signed as the 12th Homegrown Player in club history on Aug. 30, 2019.
The Ibague, Colombia, born Hernandez engaged in a phone interview with The Blue Testament Wednesday afternoon. We started with some fun facts:
The Facts on Felipe Hernandez
|Cheat meal||Culver's triple cheeseburger (cheese only) and a Pepsi (no ice)|
|Favorite activity||Xbox with teammates, mostly homegrowns: FIFA & NBA 2K. Watches a lot of YouTube/Netflix.|
|Outdoor activity||Walks are calming with music in and a chill vibe|
|Binge watch Rec||Prison Break|
|Little known skill||In 5th grade, he bossed those multiplication tables.|
Hernandez summed up himself by revealing, “I like to keep things chill and relaxed in my life. That relaxes me and gives me peace of mind.” But mess with his “just cheese” on his triple hamburger and his “no ice” in his Pepsi, you might best step away.
Let’s get to the Q and A:
The Blue Testament: Was there a moment when you knew it was possible to become a professional soccer player?
Felipe Hernandez: “It was back in Tennessee. I used to play for my high school, and people would tell me I was good. And my mom and my dad would tell me I was all good. At first, I didn’t listen to them because, as their son, they have to tell me that. But then other people started telling me. Then this coach, who was affiliated with Sporting Kansas City, made a team down in Nashville called Sporting Heroes. His name is Desmond Armstrong (Check out that link that chronicles Armstrong’s rise to the US National Team). He talked to me and my family and said that he saw potential and that he wanted me to play for his team and that it was affiliated with an MLS club. It happened really quick. I was playing with him; then, all of a sudden, I’m here in Kansas City trialing for the academy. That is when I started to realize I had potential if I put my mind to it.”
TBT: Was that your inspiration or did you have some players you looked up to?
FH: “I always liked [former Barcelona central midfielder Andres] Iniesta. But when I first came to the academy and started watching Sporting and loving Sporting, [former Sporting KC central midfielder and current Director of Technical Operations] Benny Feilhaber was definitely my favorite player. I always loved watching him play. When I was younger, I had a similar playing style to Benny. But now I think I kind of play like [current Sporting midfielder] Roger [Espinoza] and Benny at the same time. Seeing Roger every day and seeing what he does definitely helps me.”
Feilhaber just joined the Sporting KC staff this past offseason, so we had to ask...
TBT: What kind of coach is Benny?
FH: “He is super chill, super laid back. It helps that he used to play in the midfield in the position I am playing in.
“‘If he sees something is wrong, he will tell me straight forward, ‘This needs to be changed.’ or ‘You need to do this.’ It is really straight forward from him, but it’s effective. It is not said in a rude way. It is just telling you ‘I’ve played here before.’ If I am doing something right, he will tell me ‘This is the right way to do it’ or ‘This is the more effective way to do it.’”
TBT: What is something specific Benny instructed you in?
“This preseason, I was playing at the six a lot. And I kept getting balls from the backline or a wider player. And I always felt myself being rushed and not being able to see the whole field and just always having someone on my back. After one of the trainings back in Arizona, he told me, ‘Try out looking over your shoulder every three seconds, open up your body, and when you are getting the ball, check your shoulder, and open up your body. That way you can see the whole field.’ It’s a fundamental that you should learn when you are really young, but that is one of the things I didn’t learn.
“He was telling me, ‘Whenever I see you didn’t open up, I’m always going to yell at you, just so it gets to a point to where I don’t have to nag you.’ It has helped me a lot. Now, I check my shoulder all the time and open up and see the whole field. It is something really simple, but beneficial.”
Hernandez is a groundbreaker: the first-ever Sporting player to progress from an Academy Affiliate club to the Sporting KC Academy to Sporting Kansas City II before signing with the senior team.
TBT: You have created your own legacy. Do you feel that you are an inspiration to others that are rising through ranks?
FH: “It’s crazy because right now, I’m living in a dream it feels like. I didn’t even realize until some people were telling me that younger guys look up to me and that people back in Tennessee look up to me and things like that. Yah, it’s awesome, just doing what you love and people looking up to you. I am just trying to show people that wherever you are from, if you work hard and stay dedicated to something you can do whatever you want.”
Hernandez had his best season with SKC II in 2019, notching eight goals and three assists while starting 22 of 23 appearances. For the first team in 2020, he broke out a bit, starting eight of 16 appearances and recorded one assist. Hernandez is an attacking-minded player who finished his first MLS goal just two weeks ago on June 23 versus Colorado Rapids. However, his game has evolved while playing at the #8 for Sporting, externally and internally.
TBT: Is there something at the #8 that you feel need to work on or that you have done well?
FH: “Last year, I got some games in, but I was just dipping my feet in the water for MLS. I felt really restricted and was really always playing with the mind of just me thinking ‘Don’t mess up’ and constantly being worried about making a mistake. This year, I tried to come in – I talked with Peter a bit too. And he told me how he wants players that are willing to take risks. And I told him that I just need to get some confidence. I lacked a lot of confidence last year. – and do what I can to get my confidence back.
“Over the last few games, I feel confident, happy playing the game, and I’m just doing whatever. It’s not like I’m in my head. I’m just playing. Whatever happens, fine. I’m just going out there having fun. It’s crazy. I go out there in front of all these fans, and it’s just me having fun… That is when I play my best, when I go out there with a clear mind and just have fun.”
Although Hernandez replaced Walter in that Austin FC match, the left midfield spot Hernandez is playing in was previously manned by designated player Gadi Kinda who was injured while on international duty with Israel. It is an integral cog in the left side dominance that Sporting has sported much of the season.
TBT: That left side – Andreu Fontas, Daniel Salloi, Gadi Kinda, Alan Pulido – all work so well together. And you have come in and have fit in just as well. Any thoughts on playing with those guys?
FH: “It is amazing to play with all of them, especially, Daniel. I used to play with him back in academy… When I would go up and play with the U-18s, I was always with him in training or a game. Coming up in the academy with him and still playing here and having a good connection on the field is awesome (It was Salloi who assisted Felipe’s first MLS goal). Alan, he is a beast. So it is fun to play with guys like that. Fonti, he comes from Barcelona, so he makes it simple on you. He gives you the ball, you give it back. Just move the ball.”
TBT: It is a big talking point these days. Are there European dreams for Felipe Hernandez?
FH: “Right now, I have not thought of anything crazy like that. But, yah, it is always a possibility. That is something I would never look (pass) over because that would be a huge step. We will see what happens. Right now, I’m here at Sporting trying to do some good things.”
Go on with it, Felipe. And thank you for your time.