On a February evening in the backyard of a suburban Kansas City home, Gerso Fernandes dribbled a soccer ball while wearing his Sporting KC uniform. He inched forward and tapped it into a net before launching into his customary bat-swing goal celebration.
With a twist. A family member tossed another ball his way, and Fernandes swung an actual plastic bat toward it. The ball exploded upon connection. Blue smoke filled the air.
“It’s a boy!” Fernandes said, embracing his wife, Emmy, among friends and family at a gender reveal party.
On Sunday, Fernandes is scheduled to become a father for the first time, a day after Sporting KC travels to face Vancouver. He hopes the boy will wait until he returns.
Fernandes’ childhood has offered a unique perspective on fatherhood, and it’s motivated a bounce-back season. Two years ago, he shared his life story for the first time in an interview with The Star. The essence of it: He spent much of his youth living as an orphan in Portugal. Fernandes, 28, hasn’t spoken to his birth parents in more than two decades.
“I think a lot about (my childhood),” Fernandes said. “I don’t know how I’m going to be as a father, but who I am on the field and off the field, that’s what my kid is going to see and be able to follow, if he wants to. I wanna be the best that I am so I can give him the best he can have from me.”
Fernandes was born in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, but his parents gave him up when he was just 4 years old, hoping he would escape the country’s civil war. He lived with an aunt and uncle in Portugal for three years before he witnessed a man stabbing his uncle to death. Fernandes moved into a local orphanage, where a Catholic priest once forced him to quit soccer before Fernandes found adoption.
The unlikely path to professional soccer eventually brought him to Kansas City, where he met a local girl and fell in love. They married last summer. When Emmy became pregnant, Fernandes was closing a disappointing year with Sporting KC.
The news, he said, provided the ambition he needed.
“You stop being selfish, thinking it’s just about you,” he said. “Even the bad days, you think, ‘OK, I’m about to have a kid. I have people who depend on me.’ You really change your mind and think in a different way. I’m getting more mature and responsible about myself and what I have to do with my job.”
When Fernandes arrived at preseason camp in 2018, he was out of shape. Almost immediately, he found himself withdrawn from the preferred starting lineup. The minutes dipped. The production did, too.
In 2019, a little boy on the way, he spent the winter working. He knew he occupied too much time a year earlier with friends, pushing aside the career. “I had to set my mind to do the work if I wanted to be in shape,” he said.
In a spiraling Sporting KC season in 2019, the return of Fernandes’ impact on the field is a bright spot. On a team that lacks speed, he provides plenty of it. He moves with relentless effort.
And he’s seen some payoff. Fernandes has scored five goals across all competitions, four in the CONCACAF Champions League and one in the U.S. Open Cup. Through half a season, he’s been arguably Sporting’s most consistent player.
“His movement off the ball might be the best in the league,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “His repetitiveness to go again, go again, go again — he just dominates his opponent. You can see he’s also feeling it. He’s confident in his game right now. There’s a high level of work ethic in his game.”
Fernandes introduced himself to Kansas City as the team’s leading scorer in 2017. Could’ve been better, though. A shoulder injury iced a hot streak. He never truly recovered his form.
Three months ago, an identical situation materialized. Fernandes broke his wrist. He couldn’t work out because doctors didn’t want him to sweat where his cast wrapped the arm.
Yet when he rejoined the team, he returned in form. Vermes credited the mentality, offering an example. Late in practice, as the team simulates closing out games, a ball in the corner offers a player a choice. Run. Or ignore it. “It’s not a question of whether you can do it or not. It’s a question if you (will) do it or not. The only reason you wouldn’t do it is you don’t want to feel the pain of it,” Vermes explained.
Those were the plays Fernandes would let up on in the past, the plays he would overlook during a slump. The mental part of the game is a constant self-reminder in 2019. The life changes have sparked an easy one, he says. A boy whom he and Emmy have already named.
“I want to be someone he can look up to,” Fernandes said, before a smile. “I will give him a ball right after he’s born. I will do my part.”