Tuesday, the Columbus Crew welcomed season ticket holders to a special training event. For the first time at Lower.com Field, supporters watched the Black & Gold train. It was a re-entry day with players performing light drills including games like tic tac toe, soccer tennis and culminating in a shooting contest where pairs lobbed in passes and shot against Columbus’ goalkeepers.
In the air were unseasonably hot temperatures and an underlying excitement. Just eight hours prior to the event, Columbus announced the signing of forward Cucho Hernández. A familiar emcee of the training session, head coach Caleb Porter, educated the supporters about training games and introduced coaches but his most notable comment came in his excitement for Hernández, yelling “Cuchoooo” into the microphone, which reverberated throughout the stadium.
That excitement from Porter is felt by much of the fanbase, and there’s a lot to be excited about on the field, including off the field. Outside of potential benefits in the standings, Hernández’s signing shows that the Crew front office got their man.
Here’s how it worked and why Hernández was the Black & Gold’s No. 1 option since the team began looking for a new striker.
General manager and team president Tim Bezbatchenko and the front office began the conversation of adding to the team’s striker core in the preseason. Entering the 2022 MLS regular season, Columbus knew the team had a battle between forwards Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry but knew a change was coming. With Zardes’ contract in its last year, the Crew began to search for additional attacking options.
The Crew built a list in the range of 250 players that fit the Black & Gold’s needs, price point and style of play, but didn’t push their foot on the gas pedal of narrowing this list down until Zardes was traded to the Colorado Rapids on April 22. Once that list narrowed, and Porter made choices out of a final list of 50 players, Columbus went into sales pitch mode.
“For me, it came down when we talked to him and his agents and just it was the project and the people in the league,” said Bezbatchenko. “We are trying to compete for titles. We are ambitious. We just built a new training ground, a new stadium and when he saw that, his eyes lit up and clearly he recognized that our ownership group and our leadership group and Caleb were focused on being at the upper echelon of MLS. And so it was evident from the project of the last few years that we are a club on the rise and a club that wants to be consistent contenders.”
Signing Hernández wasn’t a guarantee, even with all the positives the Crew provides. After Tuesday’s practice, Porter shared that the team wasn’t confident that Hernández would even choose the Black & Gold. That’s because Columbus and MLS were moving into unchartered territory or competing with not only Liga MX teams in Mexico but clubs in Europe’s top-five leagues for players.
Another piece of the recruiting process was a conversation between Porter and Hernández’s camp. During these, the Crew’s MLS Cup-winning head coach outlined the team’s style of play, his coaching philosophy and the Black & Gold’s team-first mentality. Also, how Columbus saw Hernández’s spot on the team.
Since joining recently relegated English Premier League side Watford FC in 2017, Hernández played with four teams in five seasons, going on loan year and year. When Watford finally put Hernández on the senior team during the 2021-22 season, the club played him as a winger and it took time for Hernández to become a regular starter.
With the Crew and in MLS, Hernández gets what he wants: the chance to play striker and focus on scoring goals.
That’s a pretty good sales pitch on both sides, and Porter saw the strengths Columbus needs in footage of Hernández. While the timing of the move didn’t allow for Porter to travel to England to watch the Black & Gold’s new No. 9 in person, he was given plenty of matches of footage to watch. For Porter, it didn’t take more than 20 minutes to know that Hernández is the real deal.
“He’s a modern striker, when you look at the iterations of strikers, he is very well-rounded he can do a little bit of everything,” said Porter. “He’s technical, he can create goals for himself, he has a nose for the goal in the box he’s quick, he’s strong, he’s smart, he’s got a little bit of everything. He can play back to goal, he can play facing the goal. He can score in different ways, with his head, very good movement, athletic and he has all the tools to do a little bit of everything, but the most important thing we feel is he’s gonna score goals.”