Nineteen-year-old Gianluca Busio grabs headlines as one of MLS’s hottest transfer targets and Sporting Kansas City’s key man in the midfield. But he’s far from the only youngster propelling Sporting KC to contention in the Western Conference.
That was on display in Wednesday’s 3-1 win against the Colorado Rapids, when 23-year-old Sporting KC academy product Felipe Hernandez scored and set up fellow SKC homegrown player Daniel Salloi’s 38th-minute goal.
Wednesday’s match against Colorado was Hernandez’s second straight start. Hernandez completed 94.3% of his passes, leading all midfield and attacking starters. He zipped a pass to Salloi for the second goal of the game and slipped past defenders receiving a give-and-go pass as he scored in the 64th minute.
“It’s one thing to contribute in a meaningful way when you talk about helping the team in playing well,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said after Wednesday’s game. “But it’s another thing in making sure you help the team in getting three points.
“I’m happy for him. He scored a goal. It was a good goal. But at the same time, I thought he just played very, very well in the game,” Vermes said. “That’s what we need. We need those kinds of performances from those guys when they come on the field. That’s the only way that they’re going to grow. That’s the only way that they’re going to continue to get better for the club.”
Hernandez is starting to stake a claim to a starting position in Sporting KC’s midfield, where playing time is precious and competition is fierce.
Busio and Roger Espinoza have been every-match starters. Hernandez found his opportunity because new midfield signing Remi Walter has disappointed thus far, and another definite starter, Ilie Sanchez, is filling in at centerback because of injuries.
“I feel like in past years I’ve been too much in my head and worried about messing up,” Hernandez told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “At this point in my career, I just want to have fun and play, and I think that’s when I do best, when I just go out there and perform, nothing on my mind, just a clear mind and just play.”
While he’s only 23, Hernandez’s arrival to the Sporting KC lineup has been a long time coming. He spent 2020 with the Sporting KC first team, but played the previous three seasons with the club’s USL Championship team after starting out in the academy.
“As a young kid, when I was maybe 16 or 17, it would get to me a little bit but I always had conversations with Peter (Vermes) and the coaching staff, with (Sporting KC II coach Paulo Nagamura) at the second team,” Hernandez said. “They just always told me, ‘Never let anything stop you, no matter the circumstance. Do what you can on the field and you’re going to get your opportunity, just make sure you take it.’ That’s always been my mindset.”
Hernandez grew up in Nashville before moving to Kansas City to join Sporting KC’s academy in 2014. His presence with Sporting KC’s first team goes all the way back to 2015, when the team first invited a 16-year-old Hernandez to preseason camp.
Sporting KC didn’t offer Hernandez a first-team contract until August 2019 despite a promising start to his career. He struggled for first-team opportunities for the better part of the past two years, but this season has seen the Colombian-born midfielder start to establish himself as a starting option for Vermes’ midfield.
“His big thing was he put himself through the pro player pathway,” Vermes said. “It was also, at times, probably difficult for him because he watched other guys jumping ahead of him and getting signed to a homegrown contract. The good thing about him is he always kept his work ethic and he always kept his mentality. Sometimes that makes you stronger than other guys.”