Step in Colombian international forward Cucho Hernandez, the Crew’s club-record signing (via a reported $10 million transfer) after Watford got relegated from the English Premier League. He’s perhaps not a worldwide star, but Columbus are adamant they have a true gem on their hands.
“It’s a massive signing for our club,” head coach Caleb Porter said at Friday's press conference officially welcoming Hernandez. “When you look at his profile, the age, his recent form, it’s a massive signing for the league as well – to get a young South American, 23 years old, who has proven himself in two of the top leagues in the world.
"We feel like he’s just beginning in terms of his career as well. He’s in his prime and he’ll have the best years of his career here.”
Hernandez required no small outlay either, with his reported transfer fee standing as the seventh-most expensive in MLS history. It broke the Crew’s previous record capture of midfielder Lucas Zelarayan from Liga MX’s Tigres, and gives them a go-to No. 9 after jettisoning US international Gyasi Zardes to the Colorado Rapids in a trade this past April.
It’s not just the dollars and cents involved, though, as pointed out by Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. He believes Hernandez’s arrival is a true indicator of where MLS is going, referencing his previous Toronto FC executive days when they brought in the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore during their primes and enjoyed unprecedented success.
“I put this [signing] right up there with them, maybe even higher, because he's a young player who's entering the prime of his career, he's played and seen what it's like to play in the top leagues in the world, and yet he's choosing MLS because he believes that's the best place for him and his career, and where he can shine and be the guy and score the goals, collaborate with the coach and other players,” Bezbatchenko said.
"It's really exciting because I'm not sure it's happened before in this way [in MLS]. It really is emblematic, I think, of where this club is and where the league is.”
"MLS has grown a lot"
Hernandez, capped twice by Colombia, had five Premier League goals during Watford’s 2021-22 campaign and has played in Spain’s LaLiga with Mallorca and Getafe, scoring against some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Going from those leagues to MLS may draw some critiques, but Hernandez pushed back against that line of thinking – rather adamantly.
“I don’t think it’s a step back,” Hernandez asserted via a translator. “I think MLS has grown a lot. The stadiums, the training facilities, the players that are coming here are all top [quality]. I think it’s a very competitive league. And I want to do the best job I can and score a lot of goals, which is what people expect of me.”
The Young Designated Player, signed through 2025, also believes he’ll remain in call-up contention after his South American nation missed out on qualifying for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. In MLS, he joins fellow La Tricolor pool players like LAFC forward Cristian Arango, Seattle Sounders FC center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Portland Timbers forward Yimmi Chara.
“My dream of being in the national team remains within reach,” Hernandez said. “It will depend on the team doing a good job and what I’m able to assist the team with so I can reach the national team.”
"I feel very valued"
Hernandez is in training and will be eligible to debut July 9 after the Secondary Transfer Window opens two days prior, when the Crew visit Chicago Fire FC (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). He'll likely first feature at Lower.com Field before Columbus’ fans on July 17, in the season’s first Hell is Real Derby against FC Cincinnati.
As those dates approach, Bezbatchenko is confident Hernandez can ignite an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run for the 2020 league champions. They enter Week 18 on 21 points, good for ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings and three points below the playoff line.
“There’s a really interesting profile that we were able to uncover and through his team, our team, come together and get this signing over the line,” Bezbatchenko said. “Hopefully, as we approach the midpoint in the season, [it can] really catapult us and elevate our game and connect with the rest of the players on the roster to not just get to the playoffs but fight for that home playoff match.”
Around those aims, of the personal and collective variety, Hernandez is highly motivated.
“Clearly, knowing what the project was, knowing that I was the most expensive signing, made me want to come here,” Hernandez said. “I’m very happy because I feel very valued. And I hope to be able to repay everything they’ve done for me [on] the field.”