KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For 238 days, soccer was taken away from Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez.
On July 5, 2021, a day after playing the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 win at Los Angeles Galaxy, Hernandez told Sporting KC officials that he feared for his personal safety.
Hernandez had a gambling addiction and would be suspended Oct. 8 for the remainder of the season.
An MLS investigation, the league announced when suspending Hernandez, had discovered that Hernandez wagered on games, though none involving Sporting KC.
The club and league also helped Hernandez refer the matters relating to his personal safety to law enforcement.
His suspension was lifted in January, paving the way for him to return to the pitch after nearly seven months in Sporting KC’s season-opening loss Sunday at Atlanta United FC.
Hernandez subbed on in the 67th minute, marking his first game action since July 4.
“I’m still in recovery and worrying about being the best player I can be,” Hernandez said. “But it feels good to be back and just playing soccer. Everything’s going good.”
Hernandez declined to delve into specifics about the gambling issues that led him to fear for his safety, seek help from the club and, ultimately, serve a months-long suspension.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on my recovery and just being the best player that I can be for the team,” he said.
But the time away from the game certainly gave Hernandez a new perspective on how fortunate he is to play soccer professionally and how tenuous that privilege can be.
“I’d say that it’s always been special, but, yeah, I’d say after something like that, I’m more grateful for it and just happy to be here,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez was born in Colombia and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He signed with Sporting KC as a Homegrown Player in August 2019.
Initially, Hernandez played for the club’s academy affiliate, Sporting Nashville Heroes, before joining SKC Academy in 2014.
After three years, Hernandez advanced to Sporting KC II. He scored 13 goals with 12 assists in 85 matches, including 74 starts, from 2017-19 with the club’s top USL Championship side.
During 18 appearances, including nine starts, in his first two seasons with Sporting KC’s senior team, Hernandez didn’t record a goal or an assist in nearly 900 minutes.
But he was rounding into form last season with a goal and two assists in six appearances, including four starts, in 2021 before off-the-field circumstances interrupted his career.
After his suspension was announced, Hernandez took ownership of his gambling problem and revealed that he’d entered into treatment, which remains ongoing.
“I look forward to doing everything possible to get back on the field and will work harder than ever to help Sporting KC achieve its goal,” Hernandez said in a post on Twitter.
Sporting KC Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes expressed his support for Hernandez and pledged to help him make the most of a second chance at the time of the suspension.
"At the end of the day, we're all human beings, and we're gonna make mistakes," Vermes said in a press conference.