CHESTER, Pa. – Few fans knew who he was when Cristhian Hernandez scored the only goal in the Philadelphia Union’s 1-0 win over Everton FC in a friendly match last July.
But as soon as his shot found the back of the net and PPL Park erupted in celebration, Hernandez knew he was exactly where he needed to be.
“There was no way I was going anywhere else,” Hernandez said. “Philadelphia was my choice.”
The 18-year-old got his wish when the Union announced the signing of Hernandez as the franchise’s third Homegrown player earlier this week. The first two were Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin, a pair of fellow teenagers that Hernandez has grown to respect and admire.
“With Zach and Jimmy, whenever we get a chance we talk amongst each other and discuss what we have to do to get better and what’s working for us,” Hernandez said. “I’m going to work hard and show people why I’m a Homegrown player with Jimmy and Pfeff.”
Interestingly enough, the Union’s newest Homegrown player is actually a long way from home. Born in Mexico, he moved to Los Angeles when he was six and then to New Jersey two years ago to play soccer and study at St. Benedict’s Prep. It was there, just up the Jersey Turnpike from Philly, where the Union discovered him, plugging him into their academy system.
Hernandez quickly excelled, being named the 2011 US Soccer U-17/U-18 Development Academy Player of the Year, before leading St. Benedict’s to a 24-0 record, a No. 1 ranking and the school’s seventh national championship last fall.
But nothing compared to scoring the only goal in a game against an English Premier League team.
“That kind of just blew everything up,” Hernandez said. “Being named the academy player of the year and then coming to PPL and scoring against Everton put my name on the map, at least here in the US. It helped me a lot to have a bigger name. It also put a weight on my shoulders but that’s what soccer is all about.”
Hernandez also impressed in the Reserve League matches he played in last season, as well as throughout the 2012 preseason – which is why Union manager Peter Nowak carved out a spot (and an international slot) on the Union roster for the Mexican-born forward.
“I think Cristhian showed all of us during training and the games he played with us that he can be someone special,” Nowak said. “There’s a combination of things he has to work on. But his potential is very good.”
To his credit, Hernandez recognizes he’s a long way from being an MLS star. For now, he’s simply trying to adapt to playing with seasoned pros every day and soaking in the lessons Nowak and the rest of the coaches impart.
His transition from high school to the pros has also been aided by the Union’s other Spanish-speaking players.
“I’m kind of like the little brother in the group,” Hernandez said. “They give me advice, for the same reason Peter is trying to help me out. They see I’ve got talent and I’m young and they see I can go really far and help the team out. They try to push me and make me work hard. That’s the way for me to improve.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org