Major League Soccer announced Friday that Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez has been suspended without pay for the remainder of 2021 due to a violation of the league's gambling integrity rules and standards of conduct, all following an independent investigation.
The 23-year-old had been away from Sporting since the beginning of July pending completion of the MLS and law enforcement investigations.
SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes addressed media members an hour after the announcement was made, further shedding light on the process.
'Immediately to take care of his safety'
Hernandez came to the club during July in fear of his safety due to gambling debt. The club immediately contacted law enforcement and MLS. A third-party investigation found that there was no evidence he bet on an MLS match involving SKC and also found no evidence that the integrity of any MLS match was impacted by the activity. However, Hernandez placed online bets on two MLS matches involving other clubs.
“First off, he admitted to gambling and he felt he had threats coming his way," Vermes said on a virtual press conference. "We thought it was very important immediately to take care of the player’s safety. We contacted law enforcement and Major League Soccer.”
Within days, Hernandez was on a plane to a clinic where he was provided a program for gambling addiction. He remained there for about a month and continues to take part in treatment.
On Friday, Hernandez released a statement on Twitter stating he's continuing his mental health recovery and will do everything possible to get back on the field. He's eligible to apply for reinstatement with the Commissioner on January 1, 2022.
Vermes wasn't privy to the nature of the threats or exactly who/where they came from. He also doesn't know what the resolution of his gambling debt is. Sports betting is not currently legal in either Missouri or Kansas.
“Once we notified law enforcement, they were in direct conversation with Felipe and that took on its own path. We weren’t in that," Vermes said. "We were more along the lines of making sure he was safe.”
Support for Hernandez
Vermes commended both law enforcement and MLS multiple times during the press conference for how the situation was handled. He also was proud of the reaction that has transpired within SKC since it occurred.
Hernandez hasn't been with the team since the investigation started. Still, the club showed Hernandez their support while giving him space as he received treatment. The players didn't find out specifics until Friday morning.
“All along, they’ve been incredibly supportive," Vermes said. "I can’t say enough about our guys and I’m extremely proud of them. … In regards to myself and the rest of the staff, I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily trained for things like this. But everybody followed through in a really good way. Major League Soccer did a tremendous job as well.”
Hernandez has made 24 MLS appearances for SKC since signing a homegrown contract in 2019. If he continues on a positive track and the league reinstates him, Vermes would love to have him back.
“If Felipe is following his therapy and the things he has to do, I’d tell you 100% [he’d be welcomed back]," Vermes said. "We’re all human, we all make mistakes. … I believe he deserves a second chance and I would for sure give it to him.”