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The Crew’s Cucho Hernandez has a lofty goal of goals for 2023; Lucas Zelarayan plans to help him reach it

The Black & Gold’s attacking duo is looking to build on the second half of last year.

SOCCER: FEB 21 MLS - Columbus Crew Media Day Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last season, Cucho Hernandez took Major League Soccer by storm when he arrived in July. The 23-year-old Colombian got off to a flying start, scoring four goals in his first three games and had eight finishes through his first eight contests for the Columbus Crew.

As the season progressed, however, Hernandez’s numbers tailed off. The Designated Player, and the most expensive signing in Crew history, remained productive with three assists over the final eight games but only found the back of the net once during that stretch that saw the Black & Gold ultimately miss out on the MLS Cup playoffs for the second straight year.

Heading into 2023, Hernandez believes his early form of last season is going to be the norm rather than what fans saw when he wasn’t scoring with regularity. With his newly-dyed bleach-blonde hair, the former English Premier League striker isn’t joining Columbus midseason this year and trying to play catch up to his teammates but rather has the time to prepare with his team and get his body right before the season begins on Saturday.

“I feel ready,” Hernandez said at the Crew’s media day on Tuesday. “But it’s different of course because I’ve got a full preseason with the team and I feel more comfortable. Physically I feel great and I’m ready to get the season started.

“New hair, new season and we’re ready with new goals and new objectives to be successful this season.”

The idea of goals is one Hernandez is familiar with, both setting them and scoring them. Hernandez said the team goal this year is to qualify for the playoffs and that he is ready to be a champion. He also has a goal total in mind that he wants to hit this year, but isn’t saying publicly what it is. It’s safe to assume that this goal of goals is a lofty total, as Hernandez did share that when – not if – he achieves it, the Black & Gold will be happy.

In order to reach this mystery goal total, Hernandez will need help. Last season, the forward developed a quick chemistry both on and off the field with, among other teammates, Columbus playmaker Lucas Zelarayan. It helped that the Argentine spoke Spanish but the two clearly saw the game similarly, which worked in the Crew’s favor in the attack.

Having now played 15 games together, traveled across the country for MLS media day in San Jose last month and worked the last nearly two months to get ready for this season, the connection between Hernandez and Zelarayan has grown.

“I think it’s good for us to have a full preseason,” Zelarayan said of Hernandez at the team’s media day ahead of Saturday’s opener at the Philadelphia Union. “We still are knowing each other and try to get the chemistry. I think we are much better than last year with this preseason. We share a lot on the field and off the field, so yes, hopefully we have a great year.

Like Hernandez, Zelarayan has an individual goal for the season and it goes hand-in-hand with his attacking partner.

“I will try to make many assists to him and, as I said before, I would like Cucho to (win) the Golden Boot this year,” the Argentine said. “So I will try to help him.”

Throughout his MLS career, Zelarayan has been more of a scorer than a provider. But last year, for the first time in three seasons with the Black & Gold, Zelaryan had more assists (12) than goals (10) and eight of his helpers came after Hernandez made his debut.

What could also help both players reach their goals this season, and therefore the team reach its, is new head coach Wilfried Nancy. Last year, Nancy’s CF Montreal side scored 63 goals, the fourth-highest in MLS. While Nancy had striker Romell Quioto, who scored 15 goals last season, and playmaker Djordje Mihailovic, who had nine goals and six assists in 2022, the argument could be made that Hernandez and Zelarayan will be an attacking upgrade for the head coach.

For that to be proven true, and for Hernandez and Zelaryan to score the way they are talking, the attacking players will need to fit into a new system under Nancy.

“They did a lot of good things already. So now the idea is to repeat these good things but in a better way,” Nancy explained during the preseason. “The trust part for me is really important because Cucho and Lucas had a tendency last year, and I respect that also, to come all the time towards the ball. But the idea now is for them to understand that they have to trust their teammates and they have to play between the lines or behind the lines. And about the positional play that we put in place, Lucas understood really well what we wanted to do. Cucho was out with the national team, but he understands what we want to do now. This is about repetition, repetition within the action and for them to get the picture and be able to apply what we want. But technically, the connection is really interesting.”

While there are a number of unknowns about how this Crew team will look this season, and therefore how 2023 will go for the Black & Gold, what is clear is that Hernandez plans to score frequently and Zelarayan intends to help him in that endeavor.

Given the full preseason to get Hernandez fit and gelling with his teammates, it’s safe to assume Columbus can improve on the team’s 46 goals scored as a team a year ago.

Is it also safe to assume that Hernandez’s goal is to score more goals than the eight he managed in 16 games last season?

“Of course,” he said with a laugh. “Of course.”