Last Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park, visiting Seattle Sounders took a 3-1 lead over Sporting Kansas City six minutes after the hosts were hit with a red card and went a man down. Eight minutes later, Seattle scored a fourth. Both casual and normally never-say-die, SKCTID fans began to leave the stadium, in droves. No wins and only two goals in five matches to start the season after a poor 2022 will do that.
Members of The Kansas City Cauldron supporters’ section who remained began to cheer, “We want another one, just like the other one. We want five!” If the early exit didn’t make it clear, the sardonic cheer did. Fans were – and are – fed up.
On Tuesday, December 10, 2019, Sporting Kansas City – who only a season previous had scored 65 goals and topped MLS’s Western Conference – announced the signing of Mexican National Team striker and 2019 Liga MX Apertura Golden Boot winner Alan Pulido from Chivas Guadalajara on a club record transfer fee.
Although Sporting found strong success in 2018, the 2019 season was a drop to 11th place. The top striker – Krisztian Nemeth – scored only seven goals. A striker, like Pulido, who could bang in 15+ goals was much seen as the lift Kansas City needed to climb back to the trophy-winning, never-miss-the-playoffs, consistently competitive seasons of 2012 through 2017. Or even rise altogether higher and be a perennial MLS Cup and CONCACAF Champions League contender.
Upon his arrival to Sporting KC, Alan Pulido, too, had visions of “dreams com[ing] true in Sporting blue.” But Saturday night, Pulido found himself on Sporting’s bench, having returned to the matchday roster for the first time in the regular season since October 3, 2021. The match was to be the first one Pulido would play in for over 17 months. Due to match circumstances, the striker left the stadium unfulfilled as well.
As did his teammates. “When you lose a game, it is not easy for any player,” said Roger Espinoza, perhaps the team’s most revered leader, in an interview after Sporting training this past Tuesday.
Yet, there was Pulido anyway. “Even after we left the stadium Saturday, [Alan was] still there on the phone, saying [to all his teammates], ‘Keep your heads up.’” Espinoza stated. “That goes a long way.”
From arrival in December 2019 until now, Kansas City fans have put Pulido at the center of their Sporting fantasies. With Pulido scoring six goals and adding five assists in 12 matches played in his first season, Sporting was in or near 1st place in the Western Conference. Then he missed four games in September of 2020, then another four in October. Then a sprained knee knocked the center of Sporting’s attack out of the final regular season match and the playoffs. Sporting stumbled, getting blown out 3-0 by Minnesota United at home in the second round, after having to go to penalty kicks to defeat San Jose Earthquakes in the first round, also at home.
Fan frustration, fueled by the missed opportunity of home-field advantage onto MLS Cup, was aimed mostly at the club: Why sign a big money player who had an injury history? In reality, Pulido’s injury history was relatively slight.
“Knowing that [in] the moment, [Alan] can’t do anything about it,” began Center back Robert Castellanos, a close friend and teammate of Pulido’s during an interview after Sporting training last Tuesday, “being on the sidelines and not being able to support and help the team on the field, it gets to him.”
At the end of March 2021, the Mexican National Team knocked on Alan Pulido’s door. Pulido was a part of Mexico’s World Cup squad in Brazil in 2014, though at age 24, he did not see any minutes. Despite being critical to Chivas Guadalajara taking the Concacaf Champions League title in the spring of 2018, he was not chosen for the 2018 World Cup. This newest call was critical – especially for a man whose passion for futbol runs through his soul – for reestablishing himself for a run at his last shot on the grandest stage, Copa Mundial 2022.
“[Alan’s love for the game is] tremendous. That is all he thinks about. He watches at home. We go to his house, it’s all about futbol, everything to do with the sport,” Castellanos revealed. “He does the most he can to take care of his body, his nutrition, everything is top [notch]. That is why he has so much success; he does the right things.”
Unbeknownst to Pulido, the El Tri reunion would be a fateful one.
For Sporting’s opening match of 2021, Pulido was “available… but not 90 minute fit.” The crafty #9 would be a substitute for Kansas City in the first two matches. Then, before and after he left to play in four matches in Mexico’s run to the Gold Cup Final from mid-June to early August, Pulido was a strong performer. In 2021, he would play in nine more matches (yet only 490 minutes more total) than the COVID-shortened 2020 season, scoring eight goals and assisting on three. Sporting was again near or at the top of the West.
“He definitely threw his shin guards down in disgust as he was down for the last time before being substituted out. He hobbled off the field and then was limping around after the game. Possibly because he had a big ice pack strapped to his knee,” was the description used by KCSoccerJournal’s, Chad Smith, (@PlayFor90), after Pulido suffered “a knock” in a September 11, 2-0 win over Chicago Fire. Pulido would not appear for over two weeks, and then only as a substitute in Sporting’s next two matches. However, Sporting’s lead talisman (or perhaps #2 behind winger Johnny Russell) did throw out the first pitch at a Kansas City Royals game on September 17. It wouldn’t be the last time Pulido’s extra-curricular activities would be received negatively.
That Pulido would undergo minor knee surgery came as no surprise on October 8th. Critical voices towards Sporting KC ballooned, with more and more thrown towards the man who was hurting more than anyone, whose passion for the game was perhaps his fateful flaw.
“You see the best in guys when they get injured, when the worst things happen to them and you see how they recover,” said Espinoza before he addressed Pulido’s most current situation. “He loves soccer. He loves to play. It is [difficult] seeing someone like that who has not been able to play. He comes every day and does his work. That is the most you can ask of someone. He has been doing that, so hopefully he can bring that to the field, his happiness.”
The fact of the matter was that Pulido had been playing injured all season. An injury sustained in that March spell with El Tri had lingered, never gotten truly better despite analysis, caution, and treatments. Sporting fans angry with Pulido’s dedication to his World Cup dream sided with their own club when it came to what was most important. Maybe the fans and the club who pay your salary should be your focus.
Sporting dropped to third in the West with three straight losses at the end of the 2021 season. Game one of the playoffs saw Pulido on the bench for a stirring home victory over Vancouver Whitecaps. A start in the next match, again at home due to the fickle nature of the MLS postseason, highlighted how desperate the club was, Pulido was, and the fans were to bring glory back to the city, back to Sporting Kansas City and its thirsty fans. Seventy-three minutes later, Pulido exited and some 20 minutes later, Sporting was dropped from the playoffs in a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake. Once again, a clear path to MLS Cup derailed.
The crowned prince had not fulfilled the fans’ fantasy. The reality was all too real.
And it only got worse as the resurgent hope of a new season in 2022 took a massive hit when Sporting Kansas City announced on January 11 that Pulido would miss the entire season following knee surgery that would occur the next week.
Vermes: Alan Pulido will undergo surgery January 17th and will "more than likely be out the entire year."
— Chad Smith (@PlayFor90) January 11, 2022
Labels like “injury prone flop”, “bust”, “glass house… worst signing ever”, jokes about Pulido being fragile abounded in social media. Understandably so in some ways, but those labels imply Pulido had some sort of control, was to blame.
The reality was all too real, mostly for Pulido, the person who has to fight to achieve the goals that fulfill dreams. The trauma of surgery, the road to recovery, so many question marks.
“The mental part,” Espinoza stated when asked what the most difficult part of the journey is. “I’ve been injured before, but not to that extreme. The mental part of trying to jog again, trying to turn, trying to do all of the agility things. It’s not easy to think that you may never play soccer again.”
And career-ending was a possibility. The surgical procedure Pulido (and later Sporting’s Gadi Kinda) underwent was similar to the procedure that former Kansas City players Felipe Gutierrez and Jimmy Medranda had gone through. Both played again, but arguably were not the players they were before. (For a detailed breakdown of Medranda’s journey, see Thad Bell’s (@TheBackpost) article The mending of Medranda, a return to the field for Sporting Kansas City – The Blue Testament.)
Without both their most naturally gifted goal scorer and the playmaking of Gadi Kinda, Sporting sank like a stone in 2022. Any team in MLS without two of their designated players would (Okay, maybe not to the depths that Kansas City did.) If it weren’t for acquiring two players late in the season that somewhat filled those empty boots, Sporting would likely have finished dead last in all of MLS.
Throughout the 2022 season and into the off-season ahead of and into 2023, Pulido has posted videos and pictures of him working to get back on the field and his offseason activities. On social media and on message and commentary boards, fan estimation has run from encouragement to skepticism to ridicule. Each match that comes and goes without Pulido’s return adds to the stigma. He has not bought into Sporting Kansas City since he got here. He is not focused on the team. He wants to be somewhere else.
Because Pulido enjoyed himself walking around visiting exotic locations throughout the world.
Because he celebrated his birthday with some dancing.
Because he finds joy in those things.
Because he has personality. And that personality makes Pulido who he is.
Because fantasy is not reality. And perception is not actuality.
“I think Alan has been misunderstood. They don’t know him,” said Espinoza. “People are not here every day with him. I think people go based on materialistic things and things on social media. They are completely wrong.”
Espinoza’s tone turned even more in favor of his teammate, dipping into sarcasm for emphasis. “[Alan] has absolutely been working hard throughout this year-and-a-half he has been injured. No one recovers just sitting around.”
When I asked if what I had heard about Pulido’s workout regime was true, Castellanos confirmed: “He is a workout beast. Once he gets in the gym, music bumping, he is in his mood, he goes 100%. Even at home, he has his own gym in his house. When I go over, like on an off day, it’s pretty cool because having people like him motivates you and gets the best out of you. If you are feeling lazy, his mindset is ‘Let’s go, let’s go for a run or visit the gym.’ It’s nice to have that around. You feed off it.”
Saturday’s match at Philadelphia Union has a chance to see Alan Pulido step onto the field again for Sporting Kansas City. Or maybe it won’t be until the next match. When he does, the question will be if he can provide the play that is expected of him.
“When we had him in 2020 and part of 2021, he gave us the ability to hold the ball. Teams knew that they had to respect that. He can find guys in space and [other] guys can run in behind,” Espinoza stated. “Hopefully he can come back and do that for us again, and we have the ability to play more. He is definitely a guy that you don’t realize you miss him until things start going wrong… He scores goals, something you need on any team. He can hold the ball really well. He is very smart running off the ball. Those are things that change the game for you.”
It is a mighty weight for a 32-year-old. One that Pulido is willing to take on. And one that even Pulido himself realizes he cannot do on his own. There is no fantasy in his mind. Only drive.
“[Alan] has struggled with being more patient because he is close to the finish line to get back in,” Castellanos intimated. “He is waiting for his time to get back in and to get some minutes and help the team as much as he did when he first got here.”
If he can play a key role in the team’s resurgence, bringing fans back to belief, and raise the level of a franchise fallen on hard times, Alan Pulido will have fulfilled his Sporting promise. If he does not, Alan Pulido is still who Alan Pulido has always been.
“We are very excited to add Alan Pulido to our roster ahead of the new season. He is a winner, has a terrific work rate and embodies all of the attributes we value at our club,” said Sporting Kansas City Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes on the day over three years ago when Pulido’s signing was announced.
When concluding our interview, I asked Castellanos if there was anything else people should know about Alan Pulido.
“The rest is for him to tell once you see him back on the pitch,” Castellanos said. “He has been working out his celebration, so you will see that shortly.”