lThere is a new fan favorite for Columbus Crew supporters.
Even before record signing Cucho Hernandez was introduced in Columbus, the Crew shop had already sold a number of “Cucho” No. 9 jerseys. On Sunday, when Hernandez made his debut at Lower.com Field, starting against Hell is Real rivals FC Cincinnati, those jerseys were littered throughout the crowd.
It’s not a surprise that Hernandez has become a popular figure. The Black & Gold paid north of $10 million for the forward, who the club acquired from Watford FC. He has made appearances in the Premier League and La Liga, the top leagues in England and Spain respectively.
What may surprise some is how quickly Hernandez has made an impact in Columbus.
The Crew officially announced the signing of Hernandez on June 21. The Colombian Designated Player arrived in Columbus eight days later and met a select group of season ticket holders before a watch party at The Pub at Lower.com Field.
Due to Major League Soccer’s transfer window, Hernandez couldn’t make his debut until July 9 on the road against the Chicago Fire. Given he was in his offseason and on vacation prior, Hernandez did not start the game against the Fire but came into the match in the 62nd minute, scoring the game-winning goal in a 3-2 comeback win.
Since that time, Hernandez scored twice in 45 minutes in a 2-2 draw at D.C. United. He then scored the game-winning goal in the Hell is Real Derby, his first MLS start, just 16 minutes into the match.
For those keeping track at home, that’s four goals in less than 90 minutes of action for the Crew. That is an MLS record.
But despite his quick success, those inside the OhioHealth Performance aren’t surprised Hernandez is scoring goals.
“You never completely know how long it’s going to take a guy to settle and transition,” head coach Caleb Porter admitted of Hernandez this week. “It is midseason and he’s coming off an offseason. It’s a new league for him. He has new teammates, new coaches, everything. But when you’re a really good player and you have quality, you kinda know that he’s going to transition really well. And you scout the profile in the right way and you know his personality and you know how he plays then you kinda have a pretty good picture of how he’s going to fit in.”
While Porter did admit he is surprised with Hernandez physically and the load he was able to take on in his first few weeks with the club, this is the type of player the Black & Gold planned to sign when they traded forward Gyasi Zardes to the Colorado Rapids back in late April.
Not only is Hernandez scoring at an incredible pace, but the forward is making those around him better. Since Hernandez made his debut, playmaker Lucas Zelarayan has one goal and five assists, three of those helpers going to Hernandez.
“We are all very happy that Cucho’s here and the way that he’s improved the team,” Zelarayan said. “We’re excited that he has helped us re-encounter with goals and scoring goals and just overall he is a great addition to the squad.”
Fellow attackers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz have also flourished in the last couple of games. While Etienne was already in the midst of a career year, he benefits from Hernandez’s movement and the space he creates. Diaz played arguably his best week-plus of soccer in his time with the Crew with Hernandez as another attacker on the field that can find him running behind the defense.
“I think it’s just the balance of the attack where you have a No. 10 who has a great vision and final passing and you’ve got Luis Diaz and Derrick who move behind the lines and stretch, so those final passes, those options are on,” Porter said. “And you have Cucho, who is always in good spots in the box to finish. Sometimes it’s leading the line for a cross. Sometimes it’s pulling off the line for a cut-back, which then now allows Lucas to get, at times, in the box, in and around the back four a bit more where he’s so dangerous.
“So I think it’s the balance of the front four and of course just our ability to get into positions as well.”
This was on display in the second half against Cincinnati when Hernandez pulled wide while Etienne had the ball in the middle of the field. Etienne played the ball to the forward who delivered a cross for the onrushing Diaz at the back post.
While the Colombian’s cross was just ahead of the Costa Rican winger, who slid into the net attempting to make contact, it shows what could be in store for this Black & Gold attack as Hernandez settles in a bit more with his teammates.
“That’s one of the reasons we really liked him is he wasn’t just a base No. 9 that you kinda always know where he’s at,” Porter continued. “There’s nothing wrong with that. There are strikers that are like that and you pretty much know they’re always going to score off crosses and always going to be in certain spots. There are certain strikers where you never know where they’re going to be at and they’re going to take up different positions, whether that’s in front of the back four, behind the back four, in between the center backs, on the outside shoulders of the center backs or even pulling wide at times. And I think that’s what makes Cucho so dangerous.”
The person least surprised with the fast start to Hernandez’s career in MLS is Hernandez.
“I’m not surprised because I know what I’m capable of and that’s why I came here,” the forward said. “But I know that’s just the beginning and I’m working to continue scoring goals.
“Connecting with my teammates was a little quicker than I expected because developing good chemistry can be difficult at times. But from day one, they received me really well and we see that on the field.”
It’s only been four games so far in Hernandez’s Crew career and there are likely to be stretches where everything doesn’t go as well as the start. But so far, things have gone nearly perfectly.
And fans should not be surprised if Hernandez continues to lead the Black & Gold to success.