Counting backward from 100 on an operating table, Kevin Molino waited for the gas to take him under. Darkness closed in around the Trinidad and Tobago winger. “It was a tough time,” he told FIFA.com, not knowing if he would ever play again after rupturing thick anchors of ligament in his knee. The prognosis was not good and, at 25, he was facing the end of a career that had barely begun.
“Being down and having to pick myself back up wasn’t new to me,” Molino said after ten months of gruelling rehab and now back on the pitch for Major League Soccer side Orlando City SC. “I come from a tough background. I learned early that, in life, nothing’s easy.”
The pain and self-doubt of getting back to fitness, when Molino says he “worked harder than ever,” was nothing compared to the anguish of losing two brothers on the mean streets of west Trinidad, for what he calls “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It was nothing compared to the pain of his mother leaving the family when he was just a 12-year-old boy, skinny as a rail.
On his road to recovery, the game was a light at the end of the tunnel, the same way it was when Molino was a boy. Football was the escape, a deliverance from something dark and dangerous.
“When we was boys we played in the streets, right out on the concrete,” he said about his formative days kicking around until the sun went down over his neighbourhood of Carenage. “There’s a lot of wrong paths you can go down in a place like Trinidad and I was lucky to find a way. I learned to love the game on those streets.”
Skinny as he was, Molino stood out. He had pace and quickness, creativity on the ball. When he was a teenager local pro side San Juan Jabloteh snapped him up and by 2011, when he was just 20, he had moved to sunny Florida to sign for Orlando City in the third tier of the American professional system. There, he flourished, becoming a fan favourite. He set an all-time scoring record for the league and, when Orlando City announced it would be joining MLS in 2015, he was the club’s first signing, even before Brazilian demi-god Kaka. Molino had found his way off the hard pavement of his old life. But when he heard that snap in his knee early in his first MLS term, his dreams turned to ash.
His team-mates all pitched in, and when Molino speaks of them it is with genuine emotion. You get the sense he really means it when he calls them family. “Kaka is a huge superstar, who’s done everything in the game,” he said of his team-mate in the Orlando midfield, one of the biggest stars in world football and a UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup™ winner. “But what I noticed most about him was what a good person he is, and how he was there for me when I was down.”
Orlando coach Jason Kreis calls 26-year-old Molino “the most humble player I've ever worked with,” and since coming back from his injury, he’s been better than ever. In the 13 games when Molino has scored or assisted, the team has never lost. A predator in the box, he excels at cleaning up scraps in the penalty area. He is held in great esteem by Orlando City fans and the MolinoMania hash-tag has gone viral more than once.
Soca Warrior stand-out
Molino’s return to top form is also being felt on the international stage, where he is a member of another footballing 'family': the Trinidad and Tobago national team. In 32 caps, he has scored 13 times and is looking forward to a pair of crucial qualifiers this September. With ten points from four games, the Soca Warriors are three points ahead of USA in their CONCACAF semi-final qualifying group for Russia 2018. They are looking like a good bet to reach the final Hexagonal.
“We’re not taking any game lightly,” he said, referring to the 2 September contest against bottom side Guatemala at home in Port of Spain, which Trinidad are expected to win. After that, a date with USA looms on the road in central Florida, not far from Molino’s home. That game does not have him worried either. “We need to go to USA and show them who we are. We need to push them back and score early. There’s no doubt in my mind that we should win that game and that we can win this group.”
Molino calls the current Trinidad and Tobago side the best since the famous one that reached the country’s only World Cup in 2006. He remembers those heady days well as a young boy. “It was a party all day every day in ’06,” he said with a laugh. But without big stars like Dwight Yorke and his all-time favourite Russell Latapy, Molino again points to the family component as this side’s main strength. “The most important thing is that we come together as a family,” he said, his voice stern and serious and using the full weight of the word. “That’s the secret. With that, the sky’s the limit.”