"I never gave up": Sporting KC star Alan Pulido reflects on Comeback Player of the Year

Alan Pulido - SKC celebrate

After a lost 2022 season, there were no guarantees that Sporting Kansas City forward Alan Pulido would regain his peak form in 2023.

Sidelined for all of last year's campaign due to a significant knee injury, the subsequent rehab process was grueling and not always linear.

But with Wednesday's announcement that Pulido is the 2023 MLS Comeback Player of the Year, the Mexican striker earned an individual accolade to reflect his long road back to being an elite goalscorer.

"The important thing was that I never gave up. I always worked, I always fought," Pulido said in Spanish at a subsequent press conference. "I knew I was close to returning and I had to help the team achieve the goals we set at the beginning of the [season]. Thank God I was able to contribute with goals, with victories – along with my teammates – that kept us hoping to enter the playoffs until the end, and it was like that."

As Sporting KC ascended back up the Western Conference table after a 10-match winless run to start the year, Pulido's return helped fuel the turnaround.

When the dust settled, he racked up 14 goals and three assists, helping his club secure a No. 8 seed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. After a Round One upset that eliminated top-seed St. Louis CITY SC, they'll meet Houston Dynamo FC in a Western Conference Semifinal on Nov. 26 at Shell Energy Stadium (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

"When players get injuries like that, you find out what they're really like because it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude," SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes said. "You have to do the work. It’s individual. It’s not with the team where ‘hey, you guys got to run today’ then you have guys helping you do that work."

"But I think a lot of the reason why – outside of the things you get, the doctor did a great job and all that stuff – is he loves the game," Vermes added. "He wanted to be back playing and that's why he's out on the field. He was a very, very big signing for us when he signed originally and then the fact that he was injured for the majority of the time, that was a very, very difficult proposition for all of us to swallow."

Pulido's resurgence convinced club brass that he'll remain a long-term centerpiece, too. The No. 9 signed a contract extension in mid-September, keeping him with SKC as a Designated Player through 2026.

"Getting him back this year, and then trying to re-sign him, all of that was very important to the overall future steps for the club," Vermes said. "I've always said that as a foreign player, his mentality is different in that a lot of guys come in and think that they're the guy and they're driven by their ego. He’s very humble. He's had a lot of humility."

The individual honor arrives as Pulido hopes to maximize SKC's playoff run. A victory over Houston would clinch a Western Conference Final spot, where either Seattle Sounders FC or LAFC are the last roadblock to an MLS Cup berth on Dec. 9.

"During bad moments, we always make the best of ourselves," Pulido said. "This is a clear example of how well I prepared myself for these moments, and now I am here, I am going to fight for this championship.

"I am happy for this award, but it doesn't end here. I'm looking for my [Conference] Semifinal, and I want to win it."