0621 Cucho Hernandez CLB Announcement

When the Columbus Crew were nearing the final stages of their club-record-breaking acquisition of Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez from Watford, head coach Caleb Porter, as he usually does, brought in the group’s leadership council to fill them in.

Porter wants them to be kept in the loop and, sometimes, be used as a sounding board. Porter and the front office take into consideration the reactions and thoughts of Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan, Jonathan Mensah and others.

When Porter shared news that the Crew were closing in on signing Hernandez, the leadership group was eager to welcome him. Plans for family dinners were already being outlined before Hernandez was even technically their teammate. Porter immediately went to convey the rousing reaction to club president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.

“They were extremely excited, let’s just say that,” Bezbatchenko told media Tuesday on a virtual press conference, shortly after Hernandez formally arrived from the since-relegated English Premier League side as a Young Designated Player, signed through 2025.

Scouting and acquisition process

Bezbatchenko was in England recently, hoping to wrap up a deal that sources say required a $10 million transfer fee. At dinner with Hernandez, he began to lay out some of the key pieces on the roster. He wanted to show Hernandez their playing styles and how the Colombian international would fit in.

Hernandez had already done his homework. He knew about previous club-record signing Zelarayan and how they may form a potent attacking duo. He knew about Nagbe and his prowess, as well as Mensah and the rest of the Crew's core pieces.

“He already watched a number of games,” Bezbatchenko said. “Players at this level are intelligent and they surround themselves with good people, for the most part. … We were excited about not just the player, but the potential collaboration with our roster and Cucho.”

The process to identify Hernandez and other targets for a potential addition at center forward spans months. With Gyasi Zardes entering the final year of his contract, the club knew there was a possibility a need would open up before long. Zardes was traded from Columbus to the Colorado Rapids in April, and with it, he vacated a DP spot.

Columbus had already started the preliminary scouting process in preparation during the winter and dialed it up throughout the spring. They had targets for numerous price points. There was an outlined budget, but the front office brought the possibility of Hernandez to ownership, who sanctioned a club-record move above the previously expected expenditure.

Hernandez was too enthralled to pass up.

“The one thing that’s different about our ownership group, if there’s a player outside our budget, we can make a case for him,” Bezbatchenko said. “If we can prove the player is a difference-maker, like Cucho and a few other players, they will support us. But it’s not something we started off by doing [in terms of breaking our record transfer fee].”

Target debut date

The Crew hope Hernandez can join training next week ahead of the MLS Secondary Transfer Window opening on July 7. If that timeline holds, Hernandez would get more than a week of training sessions in his legs ahead of being eligible to debut on July 9 against Chicago Fire FC, with just under half of Columbus's 2022 season remaining.

Now, with the lengthy process completed – not only to identify Hernandez as a potential target but go through the arduous road of completing the deal – putting him on the field with his new teammates is the sole focus.

The 23-year-old scored five goals in the Premier League with Watford last season and has experience with Getafe in LaLiga as well. A versatile attacker, Hernandez will play through the center though has played out wide in the past. He can play as a sole forward or with a partner, offering tactical flexibility.

“If you look at the goals he scored, he’s quick and agile,” Bezbatchenko said. “His ability to create his own shot is an important factor for us. It’s one thing to have a traditional striker who can finish chances from service, but a priority for us was a player who can unbalance and destabilize the defense, find the extra few inches to get a shot off. He can do that.”

At Hernandez's profile, résumé and price, he's expected to be among the league’s top goalscorers. It’s a forecast he places on himself, too.

“He talked about his desire to be the face of a club and to lead the league in scoring,” Bezbatchenko said. “Those are the goals he set for himself coming to MLS.”

"We’re competing globally for players"

Outside of just the Crew, Bezbatchenko noticed a shift in the league’s global position.

Hernandez is the league’s seventh-most expensive incoming signing. Seven of the top eight have come within the last four seasons. Pity Martinez was signed by Atlanta United after winning South American Player of the Year, while Thiago Almada was regarded among South America’s brightest rising talents before Atlanta signed him this winter. FC Cincinnati striker Brenner came here with links to Europe, and Hernandez was signed with plenty of other options at this stage of his career.

“We’re at the price point where we’re competing globally for players like we never have before,” Bezbatchenko said. “We are going head-to-head with some teams in the top five leagues in the world. … I’ve never seen that before.”

Signings like this continue to signal a change around MLS, both within the league in terms of infrastructure and expenditure, and outside the league in terms of perception and attractiveness.

But that’s for others to discuss. Bezbatchenko isn’t thinking as much about what it means for the league as a whole. Rather, he's eyeing what it means for the Columbus Crew, 2020 MLS Cup champions who are chasing a return to those heights.

“We want to be a club in the upper echelon of MLS,” Bezbatchenko said. “We’ve demonstrated that.”