Moments before Sporting Kansas City introduced Felipe Hernandez as its newest homegrown signing, club officials stationed him in front of the media room stage for a picture. Alongside him stood the team’s most recent wave of homegrown players, all of them teenagers when offered a professional contract.
Hernandez took a different path. One that required patience. One that required him to see teammate after teammate progress past him en route to a first-team contract.
Hernandez, 21, initially joined the Sporting KC Academy in 2014.
“It was really hard. As a player, when you see someone progressing ahead of you, it’s tough,” Hernandez said. “But I know what I want. That’s just my mindset. I haven’t changed it, even if the situation has been against me. I’ve just been trying to do what I can. I know what I can bring to the table, and I know what I want.”
Hernandez represents a franchise first for Sporting KC.
He derived from the academy affiliate program, playing youth soccer for the Sporting Nashville Heroes, where he grew up. That led to an academy invite, followed by a contract with the Swope Park Rangers, and at long last, a contract with Sporting KC.
“I think one of the difficulties in the youth (and) academy pro pathway space at the moment (is) there’s a lot of players that only want to sign MLS homegrown contracts,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “At some point in your vocation, to get where you want to be, you have to bet on yourself.
“No paths are alike. You have to be willing to work for what you get. I don’t know anything of value that doesn’t take hard work to get it. So it’s one of the reasons why I’m very proud of Felipe.”
Hernandez said he never considered leaving the team’s pathway, even as the club signed teenagers Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey, Wan Kuzain, Tyler Freeman and Cameron Duke since the start of 2017.
“I like it here — the facilities, the coaching staff, the city; I like everything about it,” Hernandez said.
After initially arriving to the academy from Nashville, Hernandez modeled his game after Benny Feilhaber, who was in the midst of a career-best season. But more recently, as his game and role has become defined, Hernandez started watching another midfielder — one whom Vermes brought up as a comparison, too.
“My abilities to pressure the game, I try to be a pit bull, kind of like Roger (Espinoza),” Hernandez said. “I like to watch him do the things he does.”
Vermes called Hernandez’s work rate on the field “incredible.” He’s blossomed with Swope Park, the team’s USL affiliate. He has eight goals in 22 appearances in the central midfield.
“What I appreciate about him is there’s been a lot of kids in front of him to sign (after) he’s already been here,” Vermes said. “What he didn’t do is what a lot of players do — the second they’re faced with a challenge, they fold up shop and go home. He never did that. It’s one of the reasons why he’s incredibly prepared to be with the first team.”