Union's Hernandez rubs elbows with Vela, eyes first team

Cristhian Hernandez is Union Home Grown player

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Cristhian Hernández couldn’t walk more than a couple blocks before fans swarmed him, eager to get a picture or an autograph of the person he was with: Real Sociedad striker Carlos Vela.

That was one of a handful of eye-opening experiences for Hernández, the 19-year-old Philadelphia Union midfielder who spent part of his offseason training in San Sebastián with the Spanish La Liga club.

Among the others: watching Sociedad hold full practices on the same day as their games and noticing that they stay at hotels even before home fixtures.

“It’s just a different world,” Hernández told MLSsoccer.com by phone this week. “It was a great opportunity and I was blessed to have the opportunity that Philadelphia, Nick [Sakiewicz, Union CEO] and [Union manager John Hackworth] were able to provide for me.”

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Perhaps the best part for Hernández, who hadn't visited Spain before, was getting the chance to talk to Vela – at least when there wasn’t a mob of people surrounding them.

Hernández looks up to the 23-year-old Vela, who’s already played for both English Premier League power Arsenal and the Mexican national team. Like Vela, Hernández originally hails from Mexico.

“He would tell me, 'You can’t play soccer and worry about what other people say,'” Hernández recalled. “'You just have to worry about yourself.' At times, you have to make sacrifices like the one I’ve made where I left my family behind in Mexico. He’s so far from his family, too. He said that if it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Partly inspired by some of those lessons, Hernández tweeted that he was going to do big things in 2013. A couple of the replies he got surprised him, as some people reminded him that he’s still very young and shouldn’t expect to get much playing time this year.

That will only serve as motivation when the Union’s preseason camp opens next week.

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“Just the way they saw me train, Hack and the coaching staff know I have what it takes to play with the first team,” Hernández said. “They’ve seen it and I proved it at practice.”

Hernández – who was signed to a Homegrown deal last March after starring for St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey and the Union academy – made his pro debut just weeks later, in Philly’s second game of the season. But Hernández ended up logging just 26 minutes all season, which he called a “learning experience.”

He plans on earning many more minutes this season and said he hopes to be used in an attacking midfielder role where his vision can be best utilized.

“I can’t use the excuse of, ‘Oh, I’m 19 and still young,’” Hernández said. “This year, I’m going to have to fight for a spot – and nothing is going to hold me back.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.