Life is pretty good for “Hot Boy” these days.
Always supremely gifted, widely loved by teammates and opponents alike, but all too often injury-blighted, Kevin Molino knit it all together last season. The Trinidadian attacker produced a career year with nine goals and four assists, finally – at least it seems; knock on wood – moving past the two torn ACLs and devastating litany of other injuries that had so hampered his progress.
His creativity and flair was key in Minnesota United’s runs to the semifinal stage of both the MLS is Back Tournament and the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, a welcome return to the spotlight for a player who’s overcome great tragedy and tribulation to reach this point.
“I keep working. I keep working, I never give up. Because I know where I come from,” the soft-spoken Molino told MLSsoccer.com this week from his offseason home base in his sunny homeland, where “gym-field-pool” is his daily fitness regime. “Trinidad, it's hard to get out as a professional footballer, and I keep that in the back of my head. I keep working, grinding, do extras. I always work to put myself under difficult [conditions]. I am my biggest competition, so to say, I always put myself under a lot of pressure. This year, I've really come through, but I want to keep on going, keep mashing the gas.
“I want to lift trophies this year.”
That’s certainly a realistic objective. Molino’s move from Minnesota to Columbus Crew SC is the biggest free-agent deal of the MLS offseason so far, a head-turning reinforcement for the newly-crowned league champions that earned him the wisecracking tribute of “the MLS Kevin Durant” from D.C. United’s Bill Hamid on Instagram.
He elected to close the book on his lengthy stint with Loons head coach Adrian Heath – a booster of his going back to their time together with Orlando City, starting in that club’s USL days – in favor of a new start. This is a star who knows his history, though: Molino frames his choice of Crew SC with a nod to some accomplished countrymen who’ve thrived in central Ohio over the years.
“I worked for Adrian for a decade,” he explained, “and I just wanted something different. I’m following the footsteps of one of the best Trinidadian footballers that ever played, Stern John. Also Ancil Elcock was there, Julius James, a lot of Trinidad players – but more so Stern John, the record he set there and the platform he left for Trinidad players in MLS and in Columbus. That was one of the main reasons why I moved.
“The club, the direction they want to head to, they just won a championship and want to win more. I was keen on them and I’m just happy to be part of it now,” he added, praising the Crew’s fluid playing style and the personality of new teammates like Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes, acquaintances he’s long admired and now will go to battle with.
Unfortunately for his national team, Major League Soccer’s most prominent present import from Trinidad and Tobago won’t be on hand at Exploria Stadium on Sunday (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN) when the US men’s national team host the Soca Warriors for both teams’ first match of the new year.
Molino elected to focus on rest and recovery this month, but speaks positively of T&T’s English coach Terry Fenwick, and will answer his country’s call when 2022 World Cup qualifying kicks off for them with first-round action in March. He won’t forget the myriad off-field problems that have long bedeviled the program and led to the federation being suspended by FIFA last year, though.
He calls on the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association to make sure “things are set right for the players, for the whole team, not just me, but each and every one on the national team because in the past, we have suffered, the players, for over a decade … Let’s set up a proper structure where we can also be competing against the US and Canada” and the rest of Concacaf.
“If the national team call me up, I'm always open to represent my country,” explained Molino. “But first I just want to stay healthy, focus on my new assignment I just signed and just focus on my club. When that time reach in March, I’m going to accept with open arms.”
The island nation has work to do. Both the TT Pro League and the national team have yet to return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic and Fenwick has taken a young and unproven squad to Florida for this friendly. Molino’s friend and former Seattle Sounder Joevin Jones has called the USMNT match “a death trap,” another sign that the TTFA and Fenwick – a former England international who is the Soca Warriors’ fourth coach in five years – haven’t won over the doubters just yet.
Molino is pragmatically optimistic, you might say.
“People have ifs and buts, but as the coach says, it’s a good kickoff for the game coming up in March. The results don't matter, I think it’s getting the players going again,” Molino said. “Most of the guys don't play football for maybe almost a year, let's be honest. … if I put myself in a fans’ standpoint, we have to have patience with a new coach and I think he’s going to do good with the mindset he’s going to bring to the table for us.
“We have to use all the resources as possible we have at this moment. Because the last qualification, the last staff that we have, and most of the core of the players, we didn't do well, and we have to be honest with ourselves.”
Molino is a patriotic Trinbagonian for whom the emotions of national-team duty run deep. The youngest of six brothers – one of whom, Kevon Cooper, is a pro cricketer – he grew up in humble circumstances in the Arima and Carenage communities, separated from his mother for long periods from age 12 onward after she emigrated to the United States in search of greater opportunities. Playing in the streets for hours on end, soccer was joy, obsession and escape all rolled into one.
A chance encounter with gun violence took the lives of two of his brothers during childhood, a searing trauma he still finds it difficult to discuss to this day.
“My family was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “Where I grew up was really, really tough. I’m very, very glad that I could compete at a truly high level, play international football – and not just for me and my family, but to inspire other young players all over the world, and in Trinidad more so. Because sometimes some people don't have the belief, and when you see somebody doing good, they could feed off of that. I just want to be that guy to set the trend for the young players in Trinidad football, who want to pursue the dream.
“No matter where you come from, you can make it.”
The pain and pride of the past is a driving force in Molino’s professional journey as he enters a new chapter in Columbus at age 30.
"In life, if you don’t really face obstacles, when obstacle come you don't know how to deal with it,” he said. “You have to be mentally strong, especially coming from the Caribbean, knowing the opportunities are very thin. But you need to keep going and fight for your dream just like anything else.
“Yes, God blesses all of us with talent. But the stronger your mind is, the better.”