Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is a more important signing for the Los Angeles Galaxy than Zlatan Ibrahimovic was, and is also the most important signing that MLS has made since David Beckham.
Put me on record. I said it. Here’s why:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a global phenomenon, a household name amongst even “casual” soccer fans. They knew of his larger than life personality if nothing else. If not for Messi and Ronaldo, he would likely be regarded as the best player of this generation. He’s one of the best pure strikers ever to play the game. Zlatan was able to create a media buzz—for Zlatan. He was trotted out on talk show, after talk show, after talk show during his tenure here. That said, the topic was barely, if ever, the LA Galaxy, rarely much about MLS, and most of the 5 minute TV segments revolved around Zlatan’s personality.
Chicharito is not Zlatan in terms of a personality. Chicharito is not Zlatan in terms of magic on the pitch. The reason Chicharito is more important is cultural. In the Western Hemisphere, in California, in Los Angeles County, specifically, there is no player more loved by a large group of people than the Mexican National Team striker. Chicharito’s impact off the pitch will surpass the excitement LAFC fans showed when Carlos Vela came, by tenfold.
LAFC, in its short existence, has made the Galaxy the second sister in the City of Angels. The Galaxy, perhaps a bit complacent in their solitude, got outhustled on the streets by the marketing team of LAFC, who transformed an “idea” backed by about 30 actors, athletes and high rolling business investors into a reality that the city’s average guy on the corner and girl across the street has jumped on board with. LAFC marketed itself as the team in town that was going to be the definition of So-Cal: Young, Hip, Trendy, Urban, and Suave.
They beat it into casual fans heads that the Galaxy wasn’t their team, but LAFC was. The Galaxy didn’t counter. Zlatan was a temporary boost, but not a local connector. Zlatan didn’t endear the Galaxy any further into the hearts of the locals—No matter what socioeconomic class they were in, no matter what ethnic background they had. The rich folks up in the hills cared the same as the working class guys down in East LA—Zilch.
While this was happening—LAFC was out there—they were out in the San Fernando Valley making waves behind the back of the Galaxy—While Zlatan was in Burbank doing TV tapings, LAFC’s marketing team was outside the gates, out and about in the community, saying hello to people. They were down in South-Central, saying, “Hey, we’re YOUR team…They’ve been here 25 years, have they come and say hello? No? We’re here.” Zlatan’s TV shows sure brought some ratings and laughs, but did it help the Galaxy in SoCal? Nope.
The novelty began to wear down, and crowds weren’t full—LAFC, meanwhile, kept filling the ground every week. Their Mexican star, Carlos Vela, rewrote the MLS single-season goal-scoring mark to a number that may, legitimately, never be broken, ever. Thirty-four goals from 31 games played—in a 34 game season. It would take a herculean effort to top that—Anyone who does will have to average over a goal a game without missing a match all season.
The Galaxy, to summarize, got passed by. The new kids on the block pulled the Galaxy’s jersey over their heads and went full-on Kenny Wu on them. Do people under 28 read this know who Kenny Wu is?
I, myself, am one who has pointed out, over the years, that simply signing a Mexcian player does not open the door to the wider Mexican population in America. It would have to be the PERFECT Mexican player in the PERFECT MLS market.
Detractors will argue that this has been tried before and hasn’t moved the needle, that Chicago tried it with Blanco and Hernandez prior, and that they got a bigger bump out of the Slavic players they signed in their early years, including Polish trio Piotr Nowak, Roman Kosecki and Jerzy Podbrozny, as well as Czech defender Lubos Kubik.
Red Bull New York thought El Tri centerback Rafa Marquez was the guy. He would be the big-name Mexican player to compliment Thierry Henry to push attendance to “sold out” every night in the early 2010s. Marquez was supposed to be the key to open the door to the large Mexican pockets in places like Passaic, Red Bank, and other locales in New Jersey. The problem was that Marquez wasn’t the right guy, and New York wasn’t the right market. Sure, Rafa was a Mexican superstar. Sure, there are a lot of Mexicans in the region. It just wasn’t the right fit. Rafa didn’t bring his A-game too often, and fans didn’t turn out in droves like the team and league hoped.
When he did “bring it,” he was the best player on the pitch(Case in point, a Sunday afternoon in June 2012 vs. DC United on national TV)…When he didn’t, it was vomit-inducing…For example, the red card he took in the playoff loss to DC the same fall, the day after a massive blizzard, in a match played in front of about 3500 people, and yes, I was there—I stayed with my 85-year-old grandparents for the blizzard to dig them out and cook for them and was debating walking to the Elizabeth train station if I had to in order to make the game, which they insisted I go to.
The imminent signing of Chicharito, however, is the PERFECT Mexican player in the PERFECT MLS market. There is no Mexican National Team player in the last 25 years as beloved as Javier Hernandez. His play on the pitch for El Tri has been sensational, he always says the right things, he falls to his knees in prayer prior to the start of each match, and on and on…Chicharito checks every box that the Mexcian soccer community will be excited by. Carlos Vela and Gio Dos Santos were big, but Chicharito is THEIR guy.
It would be like if Robert Lewandowski signed with Chicago, NYCFC, or Red Bull. For the Polish community, he’s OUR guy. Bigger than Kuba Blaszczykowski, Arkadiusz Milik, and the rest of them combined. If he signed on for any one of those teams, you’re talking an extra 10K per home match, minimum. That’s the Chicharito situation in LA, and in every market, they go to where there is a significant Mexican population.
From a league perspective, this is their dream moment a decade in the making. They’ve made it no secret that they’ve wanted Javier Hernandez in an MLS jersey for some time. He’s the Mexican-American community’s sweetheart, he speaks English fluently—Largely aided by the amount of time he has spent in the UK and is the marketers dream-come-true. He’ll hit Univision and Telemundo hard right out the gate, and they’ll find him plenty of spots on ESPN and Fox at the same time—A luxury that Carlos Vela wasn’t truly able to provide them, given his more limited mastery of English. Don Garber has salivated for a decade about Chicharito being here—He’s close to getting his wish. Very close. Like, possibly by the time this is posted close.
From an LA Galaxy perspective—The addition of Chicharito is their much-needed answer to the early paragraphs about how LAFC kicked their butts on the marketing trail over the last five years as they went from concept to “club of choice” in Los Angeles. He’s the guy who now swings the pendulum to the Galaxy’s favor—but they must build on this. Chicharito is huge, but their entire philosophy must evolve around him.
There are holes to shore up on the backline. There’s service to be found in midfield—They desperately need to find someone who can feed him the ball regularly. I believe the hope is that Alexander Katai, a Serbian midfielder who joined the team this winter from the Chicago Fire after a successful run in Europe, will be that man, or that Sacha Kljestan finds the fountain of youth. The Galaxy are far from complete, even if they get Chicharito, which all signs point to happening. His signing will generate the buzz they need to fill the seats and try and reclaim some lost land in the LA Soccer Turf war. The kicker is that they need to produce on-field results and a style that is entertaining to keep those fans coming back, week, after week, and year after year.
LAFC is investing its way into that level and has from day one—There will be a day where Carlos Vela is gone, but they’ll be bullish on the market and find the next guy. This is the Galaxy’s “next guy” in a long line of “next guys” that they’ve never really built-for-the-long-term with. David Beckham revolutionized, maybe even saved, MLS. The Galaxy had a huge bump from Becks, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane being there at the same time. The Galaxy will need to invest this type of money in order to maintain relevance, now more than ever. Three game-changing DPs, aided by excellent utilization of the cap mechanisms that allow circumvention of the salary cap regulations and a better return on their academy.
Chicharito is their great off-field equalizer, and he’s right on the doorstep of arrival, but now they’ve got to ante up and get the rest of the situation right, or it’ll all be for naught and LAFC will continue to forge their way ahead while the Galaxy further stagnate.