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Crew’s excitement for Cucho Hernandez may be quelled as he works his way to full fitness

Don’t expect the Black & Gold’s new striker to be starting right away.

Cucho Hernandez taking part in early training sessions with the Crew.
Courtesy of Columbus Crew

The story for the Columbus Crew has been the same for much of the 2022 season, the team can’t score goals. After finding the back of the net nine times in the first three games, and going 2-0-1 in the process, the Black & Gold have just 11 goals scored in the 14 subsequent games.

While the defense has been good, second-best in MLS with only 18 goals allowed, and the build-up play should have created more goals, the finishing hasn’t been there for Columbus. Since the trade of Gyasi Zardes on April 22, the talk around the Crew has been about finding a player who can score goals.

“Let’s continue to make defending a strength, our mentality, our flexibility and we’ll get goals,” head coach Caleb Porter said on Friday.

Insert Cucho Hernandez.

The Black & Gold signed the Colombian striker as a Designated Player from Watford on June 20. This was a record-breaking deal for the club, with a transfer fee of more than $10 million, to land a player with five goals and two assists in 11 English Premier League games.

There is an expectation among the club and the Columbus fanbase that Hernandez will solve the Crew’s scoring problems quickly. But those expectations may need to be quelled a bit, at least to start.

After arriving in Columbus last week, Hernandez is able to make his Black & Gold debut in Saturday’s game at the Chicago Fire. And while he is likely to do so, it will be in a substitute role.

“He’s been in training now a week, three or four days full out really. So people just need to understand that,” Porter said. “He is available but he’s a week into preseason. So realistically where is at? We have to be smart. We’ve got three games. I think you’ll see him in the game for sure, but it’s probably no more than 20-30 minutes max.”

The plan for the Crew is to not push Hernandez too much as he works toward full fitness, The striker, who didn’t see many minutes at the end of the EPL season due to his role and an injury, has been in full offseason mode and is at a point many Columbus players were in January.

Porter doesn’t want to push him too hard early and risk him missing more time with an injury as Hernandez works into similar form as his new teammates.

Speaking of his new teammates, Herandez has made a quick impression. On the field, Hernandez has shown his ability and why the Black & Gold made him their top transfer target of the secondary window.

“Obviously we have him in the training and we can see that he’s a great player, very talented,” playmaker Lucas Zelarayan said. “And yes, we are glad and I hope he can adapt to the team as soon as possible.”

With no striker scoring regularly, Zelarayan picked up the burden early in the season, leading the team with four goals so far this year. Unfortunately, the Argentine hasn’t scored since the middle of March.

Now he has another attacking player with a pedigree to team up with in Columbus.

“I’m really excited to play with him,” Zelarayan said. “He’s a great player. He’s coming from Europe. I’m sure that he’s going to help us a lot in the attack. And I think we get better as a team. And yes, we are all excited and hopefully he starts to score quickly.”

Goalkeeper Eloy Room may be on the other side of the field from the attackers most of the game when Hernandez does take the field, but he has seen up close in practice, when he has to go head-to-head against Cucho, the type of pedigree he brings to the Crew.

“Of course, he’s got qualities, he can score goals,” Room said. “Of course, it’s hard to tell now because it’s only trainings and you have to see it in a game but you can see his quality. He’s got a good shot and he’s always trying to shoot on target, so that’s an excellent quality of a striker and also a player. He played at a high level so in the first training, I could already see that this guy has played at a high level.

“It’s just the small things, the touches, the finishing, the movements. So stuff like that, you can see he’s got qualities.”

Like fans, many of whom will travel to Chicago to see the Black & Gold take on the Fire in hopes of being at Hernandez’s MLS debut, the players are excited to see the new signing in game action. But like the fans, they will have to wait for the full Cucho experience in Columbus.

Massive Report understands the plan is to play Hernandez off the bench to start, allowing the striker to get his feet wet but not push himself too much. “We want those 20 minutes to be at a high level and not (him) trying to get through it,” Porter said.

After Saturday’s game in Chicago, the Crew travel to take on D.C. United at Audi Field on Wednesday. Hernandez is expected to receive more minutes in that game.

The home debut for Hernandez will likely come a week from Sunday in the first Hell is Real Derby of the season against FC Cincinnati at Field. It’s possible, though unlikely, that could be Hernandez’s first start of the year, although the more realistic first time fans see Hernandez’s name in the starting 11 is on July 23 against the New England Revolution.

“It’s gonna be kind of a slow, steady drip of minutes for him,” Porter said.

In the meantime, Hernandez will be working in training, building up his fitness and getting to know his teammates. This process has already begun in some fashion.

While Porter is cognisant of making sure the team that will start the game is prepared for Saturday, Hernandez has already been worked into drills to develop chemistry with his new attacking teammates.

“We want to prepare the team that’s playing the next game, but we’ve also worked him in with Lucas as well so that they start to get a chemistry,” Porter explained. “And we’ve put them in situations where he can learn his teammates. And that’s important for any player to get to know their teammates, get to know their tendencies, get to know how they like things, how they move, how they combine with each other and connect with each other. So we’ve tried to organize him in our model of play so he understands kinda our formation, our formation options, our style but also our adjustments.”

If all goes as planned, the Black & Gold will be able to score goals as Hernandez is integrated into the team and gets his conditioning to where it needs to be. Recently, the team has shown, through different tactics and with a strong defense, an ability to get results, especially on the road, that will be key for the rest of the year.

But this season has built toward the arrival of Hernandez, even before most Crew fans had heard the name “Cucho,” and his ability to put the ball in the back of the next. Columbus needs him to start doing that as he works his way into his full-time starting role.

“We need to score more goals and I feel like if we get that going, which we will, some of that’s continuing to get comfortable in the different formations we’re playing, but also the personnel with Cucho,” Porter said.