Two months into the season that was supposed to transform his career, Kevin Molino lay prone on the Citrus Bowl turf, clutching his right knee. In a split second, Molino's 2015 season was over.
But Molino never had any doubt he would be back in Orlando City colors this season, despite suffering the cruelest of injuries just as he was starting to find traction in a new league. Instead of living out the highs and lows of the Lions' expansion on the field, Molino sweated through months of rehab behind closed doors and is now set to fulfill his promise as one of Adrian Heath’s brightest stars.
“I’m not a guy to dwell on things too much.” Molino told MLSsoccer.com. “I know injuries come along and they are part and parcel of the game. I came to terms with it very quickly and never really stressed out about it.
“I also had people to inspire me. When I looked at [UFC featherweight champion Conor] McGregor, he had done surgery on his ACL and now he is the No. 1 fighter in the world, and Derrick Rose did it in the NBA. Then Ricky [Kaká] has also had similar surgery and come back well, and Ricky Eve, a coach for the Trinidad national team. They had all been through it. You have to have someone who inspires you, and they certainly inspire me to move on and do great things.”
The Trinidad and Tobago international midfielder was widely tipped to be one of the key men in Orlando’s inaugural major league campaign, but had chalked up only seven appearances when he went down with an ACL injury in early May that wiped out what was shaping up as the biggest year of his life.
Molino was a two-time USL MVP, having struck a record 20 goals in 2014, and had made himself a regular starter for Trinidad, with the Gold Cup a major summer target. He was also set to play a pivotal role alongside a one-time Ballon d'Or winner in Kaká, and was beginning to form the basis of a potent partnership when he blew out his right knee.
It would have been easy for the 25-year-old to go into a funk but he never let the crushing blow of the injury or the grind of his rehab stop him from aiming to bounce back even better in 2016, in part thanks to an inspirational gesture by the Brazilian.
After scoring a penalty against LA Galaxy last May, Kaká ran to the Orlando bench, grabbed a ‘Molino’ jersey, and ran to the fans to celebrate. Watching from a booth in the stadium just two days after his surgery, Molino admitted it was an emotional moment.
“That’s the caliber of the player he is, to show me that kind of respect,” Molino added. “Ricky is a mentor to me, someone I have looked up to for a long time. It was hard to explain how I felt about it at the time, but it definitely made me more determined to recover.
“He is one of the best players to play the game and I look at the work he puts in every morning in the gym and at training, and that shows how much he values the game of football, and values his body to go on and play the game. I try to take a page from him of what he does every day.”
Kaká insists it was important to give Molino a boost after a moment that could have derailed his career. “I’d been in his situation in the past, so I knew what a long [recovery] period he faced,” Kaká recalled. “The team needed to be with him in that moment because he’s going to help us a lot in the next year.”
Molino also credits his hard-scrabble upbringing in Trinidad, where almost 20 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, for his dogged approach to recovery.
“It was a tough road. Coming from Trinidad is not easy,” he said. “To even get out of Trinidad and be a professional footballer is tough. I have been through a lot and that inspires me to never give up about anything and to keep going until you can’t go any more. In my dictionary, I don’t know how to give up and it’s my basic inspiration to want to be great.
“It’s also what gives me my determination to succeed; it is about just pure hard work. I know that whatever I put in is what I’m going to get out. I think I have put in a fair shift [since the injury] and I have plenty more to go before the season starts. And, during the season, I will keep working on my rehab and on my body generally, and keep it healthy and strong.”
For Molino, the challenge is not so much to come back as good as before, but stronger and better. He knows he needed to put on a bit of weight and muscle for the rigors of MLS competition, a focus of his rehab.
“I am working on my balance, trying to be stabilized, keep my body upright, keep working on my legs, and especially my calfs,” he explained. “I am working out specifically before training, on ab work and how to prevent injuries. I have been doing a lot. I aim to look after my body even better than before, in true Kevin Molino fashion, with honest commitment, love and fun.”
Molino’s combination of Caribbean flair and a willingness to out-work the competition has stood him in good stead to date, marking him out as one of the most popular members of the team. And he's set his 2016 sights accordingly.
“Last season, my first thought was to be one of the team, and the second was to be alongside one of the best players in the world and get a relationship going,” he explained. “I was really excited to be part of making a mark with Orlando in its first season in MLS. It didn’t work out last year, but I know I still have an opportunity to make it work, and make my professional soccer dream come true.”