Galaxy shift from Zlatan to Chicharito shows promise, but needs patience
HOUSTON -- Sandra Hernandez and Manuel Mendez drove six hours from Laredo, Texas, to Houston to watch LA Galaxy's 1-1 tie with Houston Dynamo in BBVA Stadium on Saturday on the opening day of MLS' 25th season.
The Monterrey, Mexico, natives, recently converted Galaxy fans, had come to watch Mexico national team star Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez make his MLS debut.
"I'm the No. 1 Chicharito fan," said Mendez. "He's the best player mentally that Mexico has had and we've come to see him on this journey he's had as a player."
Off the field, Hernandez's debut in MLS felt like -- and was -- a big deal. Mexico's all-time goal scorer has had an illustrious club career, with stops at Chivas, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, West Ham and Sevilla.
The Dynamo announced a sellout for the game 24 hours ahead of kickoff, and the number of media in attendance meant temporary spaces for reporters had to be made available. Chivas and Mexico shirts were dotted around the stadium in a city that has as many people of Mexican heritage as the central Mexican city of Queretaro. The night before the game, the Galaxy had entered the team hotel in downtown Houston through the side entrance to avoid attention.
Two Houston Dynamo season-ticket holders outside the stadium were willing their hometown club on to success, but also wandering around outside the stadium carrying cut-outs of Hernandez and fellow Galaxy player Jonathan dos Santos. They wanted the Dynamo to win, but were hoping El Tri star Hernandez would also provide some fireworks.
In fact, ever since Hernandez signed for the Galaxy on Jan. 21, the club has been busy keeping up. This is a player with 2.6 million more Twitter followers than even former Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and "Chicharito" retains a special appeal for Mexico fans around the United States.
The Galaxy has sold more than 1,000 new season tickets and approximately 3,000 individual game tickets since Hernandez's arrival. There were 155,000 social media posts about Hernandez's transfer to the Galaxy from Jan. 8 (when reports of his signing first emerged) through Jan. 24, the day after he gave his first news conference.
The off-field impact has been bigger than the Galaxy had expected.
"I expected obviously some impact, but we had 8,000 for an open training session where you can only run around the field a little bit," Galaxy GM Dennis te Kloese told ESPN. "I think it helps that the Galaxy is a brand that gets a lot of attention. The impression of the Galaxy is not only local but is national and even international. I think that makes the impact he can have a little stronger."
But on the pitch, the 31-year-old didn't give the statement-making performance the significant contingent of traveling Galaxy fans, who welcomed the team bus into the stadium, would've hoped for.
By halftime, the new signing -- hailed by some as MLS' most important since David Beckham -- had touched the ball just 11 times and had completed zero passes. At full time, those numbers had increased to 32 touches and nine passes completed, but the Guadalajara native still had fewer touches than any of the other 21 starters, including the ones who were substituted out.
"I've always said that in this profession, it's not how you start but how you finish," Hernandez said after the game. "I'm happy, calm, things will improve, I've got confidence in this team and they have confidence in me."
Replacing Ibrahimovic with Hernandez was billed in some quarters as bringing in like-for-like. It was one No. 9 for another; one big media celebrity for another, even if the personalities are very different.
But the reality that they are very different types of strikers was very clear on Saturday and the Galaxy may well undergo an awkward process of adaptation. The team could go direct to Ibrahimovic when under any kind of pressure, whereas Hernandez became visibly frustrated at the amount of direct balls that came into him. He could be seen reprimanding teammates, remonstrating with them to play it out from the back along the ground.
"They are totally different players," said Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham, who assisted Cristian Pavon's first half opener. "I think Ibra is probably the best hold-up striker in the world, but at the same time Chicharito is running a lot and helping us defensively ... Chicharito is good to have running in behind, or he'll check back to the ball, so they are definitely different players."
Bingham went on to highlight Hernandez's work rate and there's no doubt the Galaxy under Guillermo Barros Schelotto will press higher and more often than last year, when 38-year-old Ibrahimovic's presence and lack of dynamism meant it was almost impossible.
But Saturday's game showed the Galaxy are still very much a work in progress with their new star player. Hernandez had just one shot all game and that was from nearly 30 yards away -- not exactly from where he is most deadly in front of goal, although Houston did a very good job of cutting out his supply.
All this is not to say that Hernandez in MLS is not going to work.
The player has scored 129 goals over his career for club and country at a rate of one every 0.54 games, almost one every two games. The goal scoring pedigree at the highest level is clear. And for Hernandez, it's not about touches, overhead bicycle kicks, pretty moves or completed pass rates; it's as simple as understanding that he needs service in the right place at the right time.
Wingers Pavon and Aleksandar Katai, another Galaxy debutant, and the rest of the team are at the start of the process of getting used to that.
"Obviously, yes [we are getting to know how each other plays]," Pavon said afterward. "[Hernandez and Ibrahimovic] have different characteristics, but as the games and the season go on I'll feel like we'll understand each other better."
Hernandez's first game in MLS was a success for the excitement it generated but, predictably, the Galaxy need time to adapt to him on the field, and vice versa.