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What Cucho Hernández’s signing means for the Crew’s 2022 expectations

Anything less than a playoff push this season is a failure for the Black & Gold.

Courtesy of Columbus Crew

On Tuesday, the Columbus Crew announced the historic signing of Juan “Cucho” Hernández, a move that was reported by Massive Report over the weekend and confirmed on Monday. The Black & Gold’s new striker joins the team when goal scoring from the striker position, and overall, is needed to put Columbus back into the conversation as a top team in Major League Soccer.

There’s excitement about the signing, but what are realistic expectations for the Crew now that head coach Caleb Porter’s gotten the striker he wanted? With 20 matches remaining in the regular season, anything less than a push in the MLS Cup playoffs will be a failure for the Black & Gold.

Currently, Columbus sits in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with 17 points and 18 goals scored through 14 games played. Those 18 goals put the Crew in a four-team tie for the fifth-lowest number in 2022. What makes matters worse is that 10 of those goals came in the first four matches, meaning the Black & Gold averages 0.8 goals per match since midfielder Lucas Zelarayán suffered a knee injury against the New York Red Bulls on March 20.

Hernández is in Columbus to help fix that lack of scoring. The Colombian has a hunger for goals that the team has lacked all year but also distributes to teammates, takes corners and presses opposing defenses. He checks all the boxes of what Porter wants in a foundation-setting No. 9. But will that be enough to get the Crew back in the postseason and beyond?

A minority of Black & Gold supporters pointed out a concern they saw in the potential signing, and it’s contained in Hernández’s stat sheet. In April, Porter said Columbus need someone who can score 15-20 goals to compete for championships, but Hernández scored only five in 11 starts and 25 league appearances for Watford in the English Premier League.

What’s missed in the critique is two-fold.

First, Hernández played on the wing primarily at Watford, not striker as he’ll play in Porter’s system. Also, Premier League defenses are some of the best in the world. While MLS is a physical league, Hernández’s chances increase playing against defenses in the U.S. Hernández joins the Crew with the highest-paid contract in team history and looking at his performances its warranted.

With that price tag comes expectations. Not only the attributes supporters see in highlight reels but the learning curve it takes to get to that level in the MLS. With the current state of the Black & Gold, there isn’t a lot of time to be patient. Hernández’s transfer fee — upward of $10 million — was that because Columbus expects an impact, and soon. The good thing is the pressure isn’t all on the new player.

The Crew’s injury list currently rivals most team’s starting rosters. The Black & Gold has nine players who were listed questionable prior to Columbus’ 1-1 draw against Charlotte FC over the weekend. In that list were the Zelarayán, fullback Pedro Santos, defender Jonathan Mensah and midfielders Yaw Yeboah and Artur, all who play a key role in the Crew’s successes in 2022.

Until Tuesday, it’s been easy to dwell on the negatives brought on by the Blacj & Gold in the last three months, but Columbus’ season hasn’t been all doom and gloom. After all, the team did score 10 goals in the first four matches when Zelarayán and the Crew was healthy. The current stretch of 10 matches is also overshadowing a year where the Black & Gold defense is ranked fifth in goals allowed with 17.

Combine a strengthening defense with an injury list that’s expected to return key starters in the coming weeks with Tuesday’s signing and the outlook for Columbus improves greatly. The timing is perfect too. Zelarayán, Santos, Artur and Yeboah are all expected to be back fit soon. That aligns with Hernández’s debut, which is likely to happen on July 9 at the Chicago Fire if the required work visas are obtained in enough time to train with the club.

Should all or some of that injury list return when expected, and Hernández obtains his visa and plays in his first eligible match, the woes of the last two months could start becoming a distant memory. If it doesn’t, and the Crew misses the MLS Cup playoffs for the second straight season, front office patience has a strong chance of running out.