A dead-sprint from midfield, ending with a deft chip. An absolute banger into the top shelf from the corner of the 18-yard box. A diving header from the run of play. A flicked header off a free kick.
Welcome to Cuchomania
“There’s not much he doesn’t have,” MLS legend Bradley Wright-Phillips told MLSsoccer.com. “I would have said stature, but that has proved to not be a problem with two headed goals already. What can’t he do?”
Wright-Phillips, who now works with the New York Red Bulls after retiring this past offseason, is one of 11 players in MLS history to score 100 regular-season goals, so he knows a thing or two about scoring. Another in that elite group of centurion scorers is fellow MLS legend Taylor Twellman, lead soccer analyst at ESPN, who is sufficiently impressed as well.
Cucho Hernandez became the first player in MLS history to score four goals in his first 90 minutes of game-time, flicking in a header in his first start last Sunday. His prior three goals came from the bench in two appearances.
The Crew have two wins and a draw in his three appearances, scoring seven goals (2.3 goals per game). Prior to his debut, the club had 20 goals in 17 matches (1.2 goals per game).
“My first impression of him is more about his presence,” said Jordan Angeli, Columbus Crew broadcast analyst and former US women’s U-20 international. “He’s a really charismatic guy. I know it sounds funny, but he has this really good energy about him. He’s always smiling. I think it translates to what you see on the field. He enjoys figuring out problems.”
Added Wright-Phillips: “Let’s just say this: When you buy a big signing, a profile signing, you just hope he can do what Cucho is doing. It’s unbelievable, it’s a lift to the team. Imagine where he is confidence-wise?”
The Crew won MLS Cup 2020 behind star attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, another in-prime big signing under new ownership. Zelarayan is still at the top of his game and with Cucho, the club potentially have one of the best attacking tandems in MLS.
“It’s a recipe. You’ve got him, you’ve got Lucas. You take that team now in the playoffs, they’ve given themselves a real chance,” said Wright-Phillips, who played for the Crew in 2021. “That’s what players of that caliber give you.”
New profile to target for other MLS teams?
Hernandez isn’t the most expensive player to sign for an MLS club. He isn’t the first to come in his young 20s. He isn’t the first to come from the Premier League. Yet still, the deal feels like the first of its kind.
At 23 years old, Hernandez already has four consecutive seasons playing in Spain and England’s top flights, generally regarded as the best two leagues in the world. He's earned two caps for the Colombian national team. After Watford’s relegation from the EPL, a player of this pedigree often sticks around for the promotion push or heads elsewhere in Europe, where he no doubt had options.
Hernandez chose to come to MLS; Columbus convinced him this was the right move for his career, paying a $10 million transfer fee.
“I think everyone is a little surprised, you know?” Angeli said. “We don’t see this often. No one is coming from the Premier League at 23 to Major League Soccer. Even just that has a ‘wow’ factor to it.”
Perhaps this kind of profile and deal will lay the benchmark for other MLS clubs shopping in Europe.
“If I’m another team and I have that money, I’m absolutely looking in these areas,” Wright-Phillips said. “Now it’s possible. You can get this kind of player, why not? A player coming just out of the Premier League or someone not getting enough games. MLS has to realize the power to offer living in America, in these cities, it’s unbelievable.”
“It’s very replicable,” Twellman added. “But remember spending $10 million-plus isn’t always a guarantee.”