Two hours before kickoff at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Gutierrez knocked on the door of his coach’s office and walked in.
“If it’s OK with you,” he said in his native Spanish, “I want to talk to the team before the game.”
“Sure,” coach Peter Vermes responded, his curiosity piqued. “What about?”
Gutierrez held up his phone, displaying a video package of Sporting KC highlights from early in the season. Instances in which the team played well. Examples of its capabilities.
“I want to show everyone this,” he said.
Vermes nodded, approving the idea. Days later, he would reference the anecdote as the impetus for a weekend victory. The only surprise, he said, was the source of the message — Gutierrez is Sporting KC’s leading scorer, yet he is in just his second season in Kansas City, and he’s not known to be particularly outspoken.
But the truth is it had been brewing awhile, Gutierrez says, intensifying as Sporting’s slump prolonged. He possesses a certain edge, noticeable on the field but perhaps less so away from it, an intensity that dates back long ago.
Back to the kid who needed the game as much as he wanted it.
“Personally, I fight for everything because of my (background), and maybe I feel a little more angry at a small thing,” says Gutierrez, who was born and raised in Chile, a country occupying the western sliver of South America. “Another person can think, ‘Oh, why is he angry for nothing?’ For me, maybe it means a little too much sometimes.”
Growing up in Chile
Soccer is a way of life in Chile. Gutierrez has played longer than his memory traces. Credits his father with introducing him to the sport. Every weekend morning, his dad would come home, walk into the living room and address Gutierrez and his brother with the same instruction.
Let’s go to the forest and play soccer.
Gutierrez never had cable television. Never watched a soccer game until he was a teenager. Didn’t know people made a living playing a sport. He played purely for the joy.
One evening, after arriving home from a neighborhood game, Gutierrez and his brother were greeted by their mom. She sat them down. She had some news.
Your father is leaving us, she told them.
“That changed my life forever,” Gutierrez says.
His father moved to the Netherlands. They rarely kept in contact.
Gutierrez had been close with his dad, who was the financial provider in the home. His mom had never held a job.
“I see my mom cry sometimes because she didn’t have money to pay for bread or for this small thing,” Gutierrez says. “When my father leave, it was really difficult. When you’re young, you’re not thinking of that. But we didn’t have a really good life.”
His mom lacked the money to pay the phone bill. Couldn’t pay the water bill. Couldn’t afford electricity until weeks later when she found a job.
Her monthly salary: $150.
They lived in neighborhoods with families who understood their struggle. They lived it, too.
The kids got creative. With his brother, Gutierrez walked to different places throughout the community, in search of pick-up games. On the street. In the fields. Wherever. They played for hours, an escape from the realities at home.
“We just started to play on our own,” he says. “That’s when the love for soccer was growing. When you play soccer, the economy problems, you’re not thinking of that. You can only enjoy the life.”
When Gutierrez was a teenager, his family moved north along the coast, in search of better opportunity.
Soccer provided one. He latched on with the youth academy at Everton de Vina del Mar. Scouts spotted him there, and at 17, he signed a professional contract. Stops in Chile, Netherlands, Spain and Brazil preceded his signing in Kansas City in February 2018. Every month, he sends resources back to his mother in Chile.
His annual salary, per the MLS players association: $1.65 million.
Home in KC
Sporting tried to acquire Gutierrez in 2016 and 2017 but deemed the transfer fees too expensive. The team kept occasional tabs on his progress but had all but given up on the notion last winter.
Then a friend approached Vermes at the 2018 MLS combine.
“Would you still have interest in Felipe Gutierrez?”
“Of course,” Vermes replied, as he recalled the conversation this week. “But he’s probably too expensive, can’t get out of his contract, and if you’re talking to me, you’ve probably already told other teams, so we probably don’t have discovery rights.”
Actually, Gutierrez was available, soon to be out of contract. Vermes was the first to know.
Within seconds, he turned to technical director Brian Bliss and instructed him to call the league and claim Gutierrez’s discovery rights. The deal was done several days later.
Gutierrez had never visited Kansas City. Heck, he’d never even watched Sporting play. He relied on word of mouth.
A warm greeting followed — Gutierrez won MLS player of the month honors in March 2018, his first month in the league. A sports hernia injury slowed his initial season, but coaches believe he’s regained form as Year Two ages, the most consistent presence in Sporting’s lineup during the team’s injury-riddled season.
He leads Sporting KC with eight goals.
“The team and the city is amazing, and I want to be here for as long as possible,” Gutierrez says. “I love my life. I’m doing what I love. That’s why I want to play for a long time.”
Mom has visited. She likes it here. Plans to come again next month. He speaks to his dad occasionally. “It’s not the worst, but it’s not the best,” he says of their present-day relationship.
Gutierrez lives with his wife in suburban Kansas City. They have two sons, 4-year-old Matias and 3-year-old Gael.
His life story is summarized on his left arm, each artistic marking representative of the moments that have defined him. From shoulder to wrist, he weaves a tale of personal reflection.
Anniversaries. Birthdays. The names of his mom, wife and brother. The hours of a clock displaying the time of his eldest son’s birth. Symbols for his Catholic faith.
Along his forearm, the centerpiece features a vast and tall milenario tree, a perennial plant that can grow at an exceedingly slow place, sometimes just a few centimeters every year.
The impression that sticks with Gutierrez is this: Albeit slowly, the tree indeed grows. Day after day. Year after year.
“This here,” he said, his index finger tapping the tree. “This is like my life.”