Hispanic Heritage Month

Cucho Hernandez gives Columbus Crew their "protagonist" at striker

Editor’s note: As part of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, MLSsoccer.com is bringing back "best of" features on Latin American stars in MLS this season. This story originally ran on July 8, 2022.

Let’s face it. Moving is rough. Schlepping your things from one place to another is an unnerving experience and can make one feel out of sorts.

So imagine being Juan Camilo ‘Cucho’ Hernandez, a player who has had five different homes since 2017: On loan at America de Cali in his native Colombia, followed by three straight loan spells in Spain at Huesca, Mallorca and Getafe, before finally getting a chance with former parent club Watford during the 2021-22 English Premier League season.

But even a return to the club that held his rights didn’t yield the stability that he sought after the Hornets were relegated to the Championship last spring.

Finally, though, it looks like the 23-year-old has found a place that he can call home for the long term after being acquired by Columbus Crew for a reported $10 million on June 21, joining as a Young Designated Player through the 2025 MLS season.

“Changing teams every year was frustrating,” said Hernandez in a phone interview this week. “It was a little odd having to play on a different team each year, but it was also good because each stop that I had in Europe helped me grow and improve as a player.

“It was actually a beneficial experience each year, but now I’m happy to be here and in this club and hopefully I am here for many years,” added Hernandez.

"I can be a protagonist"

It has been a whirlwind two weeks for Hernandez since his signing was announced. From being introduced in a press conference, to greeting the home fans last Sunday at Lower.com Field in Columbus' 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union, to finally getting a chance to train with his new teammates for the first time.

At every stop and with every interview, it is obvious that energy is spilling out of Hernandez, who is expected to make his debut this Saturday at Chicago Fire FC (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), most likely as a substitute off the bench.

His last debut went pretty well. After just 49 seconds on the field during Watford’s 2021-22 opener against Aston Villa, Hernandez had the ball in the back of the net. No pressure, then, for Saturday, right?

“The expectations are high,” said Hernandez with a chuckle when asked if he can better his Watford debut. “The fans trust that I am going to do a great job, but what I can promise is that I will always give it my all and if goals come from it, that would be more than welcome.

“I’m training, getting myself ready and very eager to start. I hope to be able to help and contribute to the team. I’m very happy and very eager to play.”

There’s no question that Columbus are getting a player who is very talented and has developed a knack for scoring big goals, including memorable strikes against Spanish giants Barcelona at the Camp Nou and Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, plus other tallies against English powerhouse sides Arsenal and Manchester City.

Yet for those memorable goals, Hernandez is a player that has never quite enjoyed the consistency required for a forward to go from good to great. Outside of his 16-goal haul for Huesca in Spain’s Segunda Division in 2017-18, Hernandez hasn’t reached double-digit goal totals since his 20 goals in 33 games with Deportivo Pereira in Colombia’s second flight in 2016.

Whether it was the constant loans, injuries at ill-opportune times or being left out by a manager, Hernandez has never gotten that steady run of games. He’s always had to deal with a slew of managerial changes and played on teams teetering on the brink of relegation. It is no wonder, then, that Columbus were such an attractive option, knowing that he arrives as a sure-fire starter and a long-term centerpiece alongside Lucas Zelarayan.

“Every player wants to play, have continuity and play a lot of games and support the team as best he can,” Hernandez said. “This is a great chance to do it. And I think I can be a protagonist if I work hard. It’s not easy, but I am taking things calmly because I have just started, but clearly, yes, that is the idea, to be a protagonist and have continuity.”

The Colombia question

While some still apply the “retirement league” label to MLS, moves like Hernandez's arrival in Columbus should challenge it.

Just 23, his best years are still ahead. Still, it’s hard not to wonder that if Colombia had qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, whether Hernandez would have stayed in Europe.

The twice-capped forward, however, disagrees that this Columbus decision was conditioned by Colombia’s qualification failure. He maintains that a return to the national team setup – his last appearance coming in an early-June friendly vs. Saudi Arabia – while playing in MLS is feasible.

“I never made this decision based on whether Colombia was in the World Cup or not,” said Hernandez. “At the same time, I did not have much participation in the process of World Cup qualifying, but I don’t think playing in MLS takes away the possibility of playing in the national team.

“I think by working hard here I can be part of the national team again. I don’t think playing here is going to be judged against me. Anywhere I go, I will always try to play at a national team level and if I do a good job, I’ll be there.”

In the right spot

It was music to Hernandez’s ears when he heard it the first time: “You come here, you’ll be a center forward.” Those were the words that emanated from the mouth of Columbus head coach Caleb Porter and the rest of the Crew brass in their attempts to lure Hernandez to Ohio.

Porter reiterated it at his press conference after the signing was official, emphasizing that Hernandez will be the club’s No. 9 after they traded away US international Gyasi Zardes to the Colorado Rapids in April. New teammate Kevin Molino even coughed up the No. 9 jersey without a fuss.

It’s pretty straightforward: Hernandez’s days of playing out wide on the wings or slightly deeper as a second striker, which he did in his various European stops, are over as long as he is Columbus.

“I mean, that’s one of the main reasons why I came, to be able to continually play that position, to play as a No. 9, to score goals,” said Hernandez. “I loved the idea that they wanted me to be a No. 9. I’ll play wherever, but at the No. 9 is the position that I know best and the position where I can perform my best.”

There is also the prospect of Hernandez teaming up with Zelarayan to form one of the most dangerous partnerships at present in MLS. That was another aspect highlighted by Porter in his address to the media, and MLS is no stranger to its love affairs with two-headed monsters.

Hernandez is excited to be playing with the creative Armenian international, who led Columbus to an MLS Cup 2020 conquest, but also knows that dynamic duos don’t just grow on trees.

“We have to take things calmly,” Hernandez said. “Lucas is a great player and has done great things, but forming good relationships can take time, but I have many expectations that we can do well together on the field. He is a player of great quality and we also have other great players. If the team does a good job, it will be wonderful to share that success with everyone.”

With Columbus currently sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, climbing back into the upper echelons of the conference and being considered an MLS Cup candidate won’t be easy. But Hernandez is the type of game-changer that can propel a team to a second-half run, similar to when Nicolas Lodeiro joined Seattle from Boca Juniors during the summer of 2016. That turned out pretty well for the Sounders, mind you, hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy over Toronto FC.

Suffice to say, Hernandez doesn’t accept anything less.

“I define success as getting to finals and having the opportunity to be champion,” Hernandez said. “I think that is the idea. I want to win, have success and triumphing would be doing a great job the rest of the season and achieving those positive things.”