Wuilito Fernandes figured his career was over after a serious knee injury in 2018. But five years later, he’s back in action with Brockton United FC in the United Premier Soccer League, picking up where he left off after playing in both the USL Championship and, globally, in FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Cape Verde’s national team.
Fernandes, 33, may have lost a step, but he remains a scoring threat – his back-post finish of a Stephan Teixeira cross gave Brockton a 3-2 come-from-behind win over CD Faialense in the Third Qualifying Round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in October.
Next up in the competition is a visit to the three-time champion New York Pancyprian-Freedoms at Belson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University on Saturday night (Nov. 18th). It’s the fourth consecutive time the Brockton club’s reached the Final Round of Qualifying.
A win puts Fernandes and his Massachusetts side through to next year’s Open Cup.
Return in Brockton Colors
“They had a good, young team, but they needed somebody with a little experience,” Fernandes said of Brockton United, an amateur power in New England. “They thought I was joking, but I told them my knees would not let me play. But then, toward the end of last year, it started feeling better.
“I’m not as quick, as fast, explosive, or athletic as before, but I’m still able to move around,” he said
Fernandes combined power and skill as an attacking midfielder/forward, getting his start in soccer in Praia, Cape Verde – an archipelago off the coast of West Africa that was formerly a colony of Portugal. He then moved to Boston for his senior year of high school.
Having scored an astonishing 23 goals in 13 games at Boston International High School in 2010, Fernandes went on trial with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer (MLS) and FC Arouca in Portugal’s third division. A toe injury limited Fernandes’ time with the Red Bulls, but he recovered and was offered a contract by Arouca.
It was an offer he turned down, however, returning to the U.S. to enroll at humble UMass-Lowell. Fernandes outlined his thinking at the time: “I told myself I was not going to focus on becoming a pro soccer player until I got a degree.”
Though a noble motivation, completing university studies seemed an ambitious goal for Fernandes, who spoke no English upon arriving in the U.S.
“I told my teammates if they don’t talk to me in English I wasn’t going to answer them,” Fernandes said. “They thought I was joking. I would understand a little bit and not be able to say anything, but it’s a step forward. If I didn’t pronounce it right they would laugh, and I would laugh, as well. But I told them, ‘don’t laugh if you aren’t going to correct me.’ It took six to eight months to become comfortable enough to engage in conversation.
“It was pretty difficult but I guess I was in a position to actually make sure I adapted as quick as possible. My mom was already here and I hadn’t seen her in eight years,” added Fernandes. I wanted to be around her, living here. I know how difficult it can be if I don’t understand anything at all.”
“The quicker you learn the language the quicker you can enjoy everything about the country,” he said. “I had the right people around me to help me learn.”
Fernandes’ family included a sister who nicknamed him ‘Totti’ (though not in homage to Italian star Francesco Totti), a moniker he used competing in local leagues. At UMass-Lowell, Fernandes went back to his birth name, Wuilito, graduating in four years with a degree in business administration. Along the way, he totaled 25 goals in 65 matches for the River Hawks, becoming the first player from the school selected in the MLS SuperDraft.
But another injury halted Fernandes’ second chance at MLS with FC Dallas in 2017 – a year after the Texas club won the Open Cup with a 4-2 victory over the New England Revolution in the Final.
Rise Marred by Injuries
“Two weeks into preseason, I tore my meniscus and they ended up letting me go,” Fernandes recalled of his brief stay in Texas. “It was the same as when I was with the Red Bulls – they needed somebody to step up right away. So I came back to Boston, focused on healing and recovery, and I got called up to the national team [of Cape Verde] the same time as I signed with Orange County [SC, of the second-division USL Championship].”
Fernandes recovered to join the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde in two victories over South Africa in 2017. Despite those wins, the team fell short in World Cup qualifying. In 2018, Fernandes sustained another knee injury, this time in the second-to-last game of the USL campaign with North Carolina FC, which he joined at the start of that season.
“I’ve been focusing on recovery since,” said Fernandes, who works as a consultant for a solar energy company.Now, Fernandes has returned to his roots in the highly competitive Cape Verdean soccer community.
“I feel like playing in the men’s league at a very young age back home put me in good position to actually feel confident and comfortable adapting to everything in front of me,” Fernandes said. “I was a tiny, skinny little kid basically getting bullied, and it either makes you or breaks you.
“One thing I noticed in the U.S. was that was not something that happens, a 12-year-old playing against 15-16-year-olds, or an 18-year-old in a men’s league,” Fernandes said. “When I got here, I had an [advantage] because I was playing against kids my age, not 25-year-olds.”
Fernandes made his Open Cup debut in 2017, scoring twice for Orange County SC in a 5-2 win over FC Golden State Force in Glendora, California. OCSC advanced to the Fourth Round before being eliminated by the LA Galaxy (3-1). In 2018, Fernandes and his North Carolina side lost via shootout to MLS’ D.C. United, then led by current FC Cincinnati star Luciano ‘Lucho’ Acosta in that same Fourth Round.
“I had no idea what the Open Cup was until my first game for Orange County,” Fernandes said. “But it was a good experience.”
Fernandes is hoping Brockton’s loss to Ole FC (of Ansonia, Connecticut.) in the UPSL playoffs will provide motivation for the upcoming Final Open Cup Qualifier in Queens.
“We are a very confident team,” Fernandes said. “We have to make sure we are mentally and physically ready to travel to New York and put up a good performance. It’s tough to go on the road, drive four hours and lose, then drive back another four hours. So, we are definitely really getting prepared.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice. We’re all grownups, not kids any more. We have family, kids, a job, and we have to balance it all out so we can make time for training and get ready to travel,” added Fernandes, whose road in the game has never been a perfectly straight one. “You need to all be bought-in to make it work. So you look to your left and to your right and see a guy ready to go into battle for you.”
Cape Verdean Renaissance in the Bay State
In the 1990s, Paulo Dos Santos and Anselmo ‘Jair’ Ribeiro, went from the Boston area to excel in Europe and MLS, and with the Cape Verde national team. But local Cape Verdean clubs were in a state of decline until the recent emergence of Brockton United FC, under the direction of manager Herminio Furtado.
“You see the same guys, they are always here,” Fernandes said of Brockton United. “Despite if we lose in the semifinals, the finals, the next year the same guys put the work in because we don’t want to have that feeling again. There are a lot of sacrifices, and we’re not as physically prepared as a USL team.
“I do miss doing what you love for a living,” added the player, thinking back to his days as a pro. “You wake up and the first thing you do is have breakfast, then go to the training ground and have fun with your friends, then back to the house or the beach, or whatever. It was a great experience, playing every weekend, traveling all over the country. It was such a blessing.”
All that remains for Fernandes, now in the twilight of a stop-start career, is the love of the game. And a chance for that winning feeling that never, ever gets old.