Why is Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez a superstar? What makes him so adored by millions, particularly in Mexico but far beyond as well?
Certainly it helps that he’s an elite goalscorer who’s played for some of the biggest clubs in the world. He’s handsome, charismatic, multi-lingual and erudite.
There’s something more, though: an honesty and openness to Chicharito that borders on vulnerability, something few people in his line of work dare to allow. It ranges from his connection to his fans to his approach to the constant media requests a player of his caliber fields, to the YouTube series built around him, “Naked Humans”.
You may recall that the show made global headlines at the time of his signing with the LA Galaxy, because of the emotional scene in which he calls his parents and tearfully explains that his long European adventure has reached its end. It forced him to answer countless questions about the meaning of the phrase “inicio de su retiro” as tongues wagged in his and MLS’s direction. But this is Chicharito.
His Galaxy tenure hasn’t kicked off like he and the club would have hoped, with a winless and goal-starved start to the season marked by choppy, laboring collective performances. And it’s the nature of the beast that the harshest spotlights shine on him.
Hernandez generally bears this burden without complaint, and he made a point of taking the blame for LA’s 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers in their first game of the MLS is Back Tournament, where he failed to convert a penalty kick before finally scoring his first Galaxy goal on a trademark near-post run.
Watch: Chicharito's 1st goal
“Soccer, sometimes it's about momentum,” he said afterwards. “And I understand that when you see your forward miss a clear chance like a penalty, it's a heavy weight to overcome, and I understand it completely.”
Chicharito is carrying a burden of his own, too. He was brought to Los Angeles on a large contract with hoopla to match, and as the de facto successor to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose time in MLS — while often controversial and marked by a borderline dysfunctional locker-room atmosphere — was supremely productive in terms of both goals and media attention.
Hernandez is no Ibra, not only in personality terms but in their different interpretations of the No. 9 role. Zlatan is a freak of nature, a plug-and-play option who could create his own chances and feed on scraps like the hopeful long balls his Galaxy teammates grew overly comfortable hoisting in his general direction.
Chicharito is different, with a more subtle skill set that works best when those around him understand and interpret space and time on the level that he does. More than his physical attributes, his movement in the box is what made him famous, and we finally got a glimpse of its lethality when he ghosted away from his marker and calmly finished Gordon Wild’s smart cutback against Portland. That’s the service he feasts on, not the barrage of mediocre crosses the Galaxy lumped in during their first few games of 2020.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Chicharito told reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. “The team showed attacking ideas that were more clear [against Portland], or at least more elaborate, with a lot more chances … We all attack and we all defend. So here we all need to raise our individual level at the service of the team, and the team is going to get a lot better.”
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It’s not like he hasn’t faced pressure equal to or even far greater than this in his career. But Hernandez and his colleagues have still got to respond. Have they learned from the setback against the Timbers? Are they capable of strengthening the fragile mentality that Chicharito lamented? Can they overcome the testing conditions this tournament presents, and throw that weight off their shoulders?
Saturday’s El Trafico faceoff with LAFC — who themselves are coping with the absence of their Mexican star, Carlos Vela — would be a pretty good place to start (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN and TVA Sports in Canada).
“We'll try to do our best every single day. I mean, with or without pressure, it was complicated to play a match after four months, and not only for me,” Chicharito said. “It is for all of us over here. So, I mean, we just need to be grateful that we can do what we love most. I mean, in my life, in my part, I love to play soccer. I love to play football. So I'm going to do the best I can every single day and then adapt myself in any circumstances.”
He depends on his teammates to an extent Ibra didn’t, but that cuts in both directions. As Hernandez acknowledged, the rest of the Galaxy are looking to him for leadership and inspiration. And if he can keep rising to the challenge of the moment, it will lift the collective — and make for a stronger group than the ones that failed to meet expectations over the past several seasons.
Chicharito has his first goal. Now a first win is required. And from there, the Galaxy can finally begin to aim for the heights they’re accustomed to.
“Hopefully on Saturday we can get our first victory, our first three points,” he said, “and then I think that will help a lot of the team and give us that kind of momentum, confidence so we can keep going.”