Lights FC defender Bryan De La Fuente had a career-altering day last January.
The 27-year-old from Southern California had signed with the Las Vegas team, leaving California United FC II, where he won national championships in the spring and fall, to join American soccer icon, coach Eric Wynalda.
De La Fuente played two exhibition matches against Major League Soccer opponents at Cashman Field. On Feb. 2, the Lights upset Toronto FC 5-1, and the team was pumped. Two weeks later, in a 2-2 tie against the Colorado Rapids, De La Fuente was seriously injured.
“It was a counterattack that I tried to stop,” De La Fuente said, describing knee injury. “My left leg got caught into the guy from Colorado running, so he hit me on the outside — my knee got stuck and went inside — so I just went down.”
De La Fuente completely tore the ACL.
“We were all in disbelief,” Wynalda said. “We didn’t want to think that he really had a full tear.”
De La Fuente said the injury happened so fast that he didn’t know what happened. He said he felt a burning sensation. But he continued playing and felt fine immediately afterward.
In fact, De La Fuente played 25 minutes in the first half and another 20 minutes in the second half. He thinks he might have been playing on adrenaline.
At that point, the 6-foot defender began to feel the pain and asked to be substituted. He found out that surgery was needed and that it would take six months to recover from the tear.
“After I heard that, I just started crying and didn’t hear anything more of what (the doctor) was explaining,” De La Fuente said. “As soon as I heard those words, my mind went blank.”
Our captain Bryan De La Fuente has put in blood, sweat and tears to get back to the pitch since his ACL Tear in February.
— Las Vegas Lights FC (@lvlightsfc) August 11, 2019
Because he had lost probably the most important player on the team before the season even started, Wynalda said he immediately began trying to figure out how to compensate for the loss of De La Fuente.
“He’s the channel when the message needs to get to the team,” Wynalda said. “He’s always the guy that conveys that message. He does the meetings. Everything. So everything kind of changed when he got hurt. Everything.”
The Lights would go more than a month into the season before getting their first win, going 0-2-1.
They would use five co-captains, ranging from now-retired player Lucas Scaglia to Thomas Olsen, Irvin Raul Parra, Junior Sandoval and Javan Torre in the U.S. Open Cup in an attempt to fill the leadership void.
After months of rehabilitation, on Aug. 24, a resilient De La Fuente stepped back onto the pitch in the 71st minute against Portland Timbers 2. He played 26 minutes in a 2-1 win.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” De La Fuente said. “You can’t really put words on it. It feels like I was competing for the first time professionally.”
Wynalda asked De La Fuente if he had any reservations about taking the field that day and De La Fuente said, ‘No, I’m ready to go.’ Wynalda said De La Fuente went into the first tackle hard. At that point, Wynalda said the coaching staff knew he was fine.
De La Fuente said he’s always been into setting goals and dreaming big. He said he likes the responsibility of wearing the captain’s armband. In that role, he said “my teammates, coaches, fans, family, everyone around me that knows, they count on you. … You feel respected. You feel valued.”
De La Fuenta’s return was not only emotional for the player, but for Wynalda as well.
“It was a lot of emotion. I was trying to hold it in, because I know what he has been through,” Wynalda said of the moment De La Fuente returned to play. “I was trying to make sure the cameras didn’t see me.”
As De La Fuente entered the match, he said Wynalda left him with these parting words.
“He gave me a hug and said, ‘Welcome back, captain. Now go and enjoy it. Have fun. I’m happy to have you back.’”
There are moments in life that really really matter- here is one of them – welcome back Captain !! Bryan De la Fuente is back after a six month ACL rehab and played the last 26 minutes to help secure our win tonight @lvlightsfc #VivaLights pic.twitter.com/Qh7iqoJAzn
— Eric Wynalda (@EricWynalda) August 25, 2019
Contact Jonathan Eskin at email@example.com.
Who: Lights FC (8-10-7) at Real Monarchs SLC (10-8-5)
What: United League Soccer match
When: 6:00 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Zions Bank Stadium, Herriman, Utah
TV: Streaming: ESPN Plus
Radio: Spanish only, KENO-AM (1460)