The Columbus Crew has been anemic in front of goal for much of the 2022 season, particularly from the striker position. The team’s current strikers, Miguel Berry and Erik Hurtado, have combined for just five goals through 14 games this season.
Berry has struggled finishing opportunities and placing himself in the right position to be a reliable target in the penalty box. Hurtado has only made five appearances this year, and while he displayed capable skill against Atlanta United, beating his man one-on-one and scoring an important goal off a long pass, he clearly isn’t the team’s best option for the way the Black & Gold would ideally like to play under head coach Caleb Porter.
The signing of Juan “Cucho” Hernández is set to change all of that.
Hernández has experience in both La Liga and the English Premier League, two of the best leagues in the world. That alone is reason enough to get even the most casual of Crew fans excited about the signing. Defenses in both of those leagues are superior to the quality Hernández will face in Major League Soccer.
While he only scored five goals with Watford last season which ultimately ended in the team being relegated, Hernández played almost exclusively as a winger against the top defenders in the world. As the Black & Gold’s main front man and a true No. 9, Hernández has an opportunity to show his full potential in Columbus.
Now that the Crew has signed its Designated Player striker, it will be interesting to see the tactical advantages he will bring to the team. So what can Black & Gold fans expect from their $10 million man? Let’s take a look.
A key target in the penalty box
“In terms of profile, he’s a similar profile to like a (Raul) Ruidíaz or a Josef Martínez,” Porter said of Hernández in his press conference on Tuesday. Those comparisons to the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United strikers are apt and especially exciting to Columbus fans as those two players have been some of the most dynamic and highest goal scorers in MLS history.
Martinez in particular set the league on fire in his first season in MLS. Despite being injured, he finished the season with 19 goals in 20 appearances and in the next season, 2018, Martíez set the MLS record for goals in a single season with 31. Martinez does this by being a key target for Atlanta in the box.
Similar to Hernández, Martínez has a shorter frame, but an incredible vertical that allows him to beat much taller defenders to headers. Martínez also has remarkable timing with his runs, which often means he doesn’t need to be the tallest player. Hernández is also known for his ability to win headers and this will be a key part of the Crew’s attacking tactics.
The Black & Gold already have talented wingers at bringing the ball up the sidelines. Having Hernández as a target in the 18-yard box will allow the likes of Derrick Etienne Jr., Luis Diaz, and Kevin Molino, mostly, to have free reign to push up the sidelines, while Hernández uses his superior positioning ability to set them up to put crosses and create chances.
When Columbus played Atlanta, it was apparent that without Martínez, United was unable to finish, despite continually getting the ball into a favorable position. Once Martínez came onto the pitch, however, that changed with numerous chances coming for the home side, and it was only due to a spectacular effort from goalkeeper Eloy Room that the Crew was able to escape with the full three points.
Black & Gold fans should expect Hernández to have the same impact for Columbus, a team that has shown an ability to move the ball into good positions but has so often come up short with the final effort.
Porter also mentioned in how, similar to the Crew’s Lucas Zelarayán, one of Hernández’s strongest attributes is his ability to create chances for himself. As a winger for Watford, Hernández’s technical ability was consistently on display. Watford’s highlight video below shows how he was able to create opportunities for himself in the EPL.
Former Black & Gold striker Gyasi Zardes’ biggest critique during his time with the team was that he was merely a poacher, someone who only scored goals by finishing chances other players created. That critique certainly won’t be true of Hernández.
This is incredibly important to Columbus this season due to the amount of attention that Zelarayán has seen. Nearly any time Zelarayán touches the ball there are multiple defenders around him. Other teams have seen the skill that Zelarayán has and are essentially daring the Crew to beat them with anyone else.
Hernández will not only be able to move with the ball and create chances for himself, but force teams to either shift attention from Zelarayán or risk getting exposed by Hernández’s technical ability. This will create more opportunities for Zelarayan to find space on the pitch away from defenders and will make the entire team more dangerous.
Opportunity to excel
Ultimately, the Black & Gold have a fantastic opportunity with Hernández. His superior technical ability on the ball, his dynamic movement off the ball, his excellent ability to win headers and his lethal finishing all add up to a player that will instantly make the team better. Columbus already has many of the pieces in place that lead to a winning team, and Hernández is likely the final piece of the puzzle.
The Crew currently sits in 11th place in the Eastern Conference but is only three points out of an MLS Cup playoff position. The Black & Gold also tied for the fewest games played in the league at 14, and with just under two-thirds of the season left to play, should be expected to at least make the postseason.
Columbus fans should be excited about not only the investment from ownership, but the tactical on-field production Hernández is sure to bring to alleviate the Crew’s scoring woes.