Everything was going well for Kevin Molino in the spring of 2015.
From humble beginnings with Trinidad and Tobago Pro League side Ma Pau, he had gone from 20-year-old youngster in Orlando City’s USL debut season to a player considered an exciting MLS attacking prospect. He was playing under Adrian Heath, a coach he was very close with, and confident in his game.
“The first five, six games, I was playing my best football ever, for me, at that point and time,” Molino told Goal USA. “All the hype and playing in MLS — I was really looking forward to it after my period of time in the USL.”
Then in an instant, all that changed.
In the 16th minute of a friendly against Brazilian side Ponte Preta on May 2, Molino tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee. Molino’s first MLS season was over soon after it had begun.
“It was hard to come to terms with it,” Molino said. “It was my first major injury — the next day I had an MRI and they determined I’d be out for the season.
“The most important thing for me was the people around me — my mother, family, friends. It’s been a tough road and being out for 10 months is difficult, but you know in life, whatever happens you have to get up and keep going.”
For a player whose pace is a major asset, a knee injury can be devastating. And it came at a time when Molino was trying to transition from a player who had excelled in his final USL campaign — scoring 20 league goals — into a reliable MLS player.
When faced with adversity, however, Molino felt that there wasn’t anything he could do but push on. That meant changing the way he went about his training habits, so he developed a routine to help him get back on the field quickly and effectively.
“I’d be doing therapy, I’d be in the gym and third I’d be out on the field, trying to run with the proper techniques and also doing drills with the ball, so it was different for me,” he said. “Doing therapy and being in gym for three or four months was something new to me. And the most important thing was that I come to terms with it. And now I’m back and enjoying playing the game again.”
It’s a lot easier to enjoy the game when the results from that work pay off, and that’s exactly what’s happened since his return to the field. Quietly, Molino has been one of the league’s best attacking players this season. His 10 goals have him tied for 14th in the league, while he is tied for ninth in assists with seven. He’s also created 33 chances from open play, which is good for 18th in MLS.
Those totals put him second, second and first, respectively, on Orlando as Molino, who can play right, left or center in Orlando's attacking midfield, proves himself to be worth the hype that accompanied him prior to the 2015 season.
It's hype that Orlando coach Jason Kreis saw firsthand before the start of that campaign while he was in charge of New York City FC.
“Kevin’s a player actually that we saw in preseason last year for the first time,” Kreis said. “I thought he was an excellent player from afar. In analyzing the players before we took the job, he was one of the guys we kind of highlighted and said ‘this is a bright prospect’ and someone we would be very happy to work with.”
Kreis praised Molino’s shifty play, his strength with the ball at his feet and his “ability to get around players.” But the new coach is clear that Molino still has growing to do on the defensive side of the ball.
“He needs to take his game to the next level and he’ll do that when he gets really committed to extremely hard on both sides of the ball,” Kreis said. “He’s still learning a little bit about that defensive effort that is required to take the next step.”
For his part, Molino has had to adjust to life without Heath, who was let go in July. Molino credited Heath with bringing him from Trinidad at a “tender age” and shaping his attacking game to where it is today. Yet he knows that Heath’s dismissal is part of the business and is receptive toward the feedback Kreis and his staff have provided.
“For me, the attacking aspect aspect has been great, but they’re asking me to continue to work on the defensive side of my game," he said. "I can always improve, you know? I can always get better.”
Beyond his success with Orlando, Molino has emerged as a key contributor on the Trinidad and Tobago national team while forming a dangerous attacking trio with Kenwyne Jones and Joevin Jones. Molino has started four World Cup qualifiers since returning from injury, scoring in a 6-0 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines that helped the Soca Warriors through to the final round in CONCACAF.
Despite making it to the Hexagonal — something T&T failed to do in the 2014 cycle — Molino found the end of the last round disappointing. Undefeated with a chance to win the group on the last day of the semifinal round, the Soca Warriors suffered a 4-0 defeat to the United States.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling. At the end of the day you want to end on a good note, which we didn’t,” Molino said. “We still have a lot more work to be done because we’re going to be going up against a different level, home and away, against quality teams. We have to refocus and continue where we left off, take that loss against the U.S., throw behind our backs and look to move forward as a team.”
Four starters on the Soca Warriors, Molino, Joevin Jones, Mekeil Williams and Cordell Cato, ply their trade in MLS, and a fifth, Kenwyne Jones, will be joining the league next season. Molino believes MLS is the perfect league for his countrymen and something for younger players in Trinidad to aim for.
“I’m looking forward to the welcoming for Kenwyne next year and all the players who have been doing good,” Molino said. “I’m happy — not just for them, but for all of us to inspire the young kids, to show them. At this moment, there’s a lot of crime and negativity (in Trinidad) so (it’s important) for us to come out and show with (the players) abroad and in America that sport can get you a long way. Sports can unify people and bring everyone together.”
“For me, this is a market for Trinidad players — a steppingstone to move onto higher leagues or to build a career here. I’d like to see a lot more Trinidad players here and working their craft."
As for whether he’d like to go to Europe one day, the attacker conceded “every footballer dreams of playing in the Champions League.” But his outlook is squarely on the tough playoff fight Orlando has. The Lions are five points back of sixth-place D.C. United with three games left, meaning they have an steep climb.
But regardless of the outcome this season, it’s been quite the journey for the young man from Carenage, Trinidad. He is one of two players left from Orlando City’s debut USL season — Luke Boden is the other — and has seen the club go from a third division side to an MLS team with playoff expectations and Brazilian legend Kaka on its roster.
Molino acknowledges it's a situation that would have been hard for his 20-year-old self to imagine.
“To see this club grow from scratch into something that is very popular, very good and a nice organization, to see how the city comes alive when we have games — it’s really amazing,” he said. “When I look at things from the start, who’d think Kaka would be here? Julio (Baptista), (Antonio) Nocerino, Brek (Shea), Cyle Larin? Now it’s dream come true for us to live in the moment and enjoy every moment.”