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Soccer

Heading into his Galaxy debut, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández already is a big star

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez holds up his new Galaxy jersey at a news conference Jan. 23, 2020, introducing him.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez holds his new Galaxy jersey Jan. 23. The team says it has sold 1,000 season-ticket packages since he signed.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández hasn’t even played a competitive game in MLS, and he might already be the league’s most recognizable player.

He couldn’t get more than a couple of dozen paces past security at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday morning before he was stopped by two fans who pushed him up against a pillar and posed for a selfie. Another man came over and professed his allegiance in Spanish.

That was tame compared with the welcome Hernández received when the Galaxy’s commercial flight landed in Houston. Two uniformed police officers greeted him at the gate and stood guard as a steady stream of airport workers queued up for photos, Hernández greeting each with a well-practiced smile.

In the baggage claim, others waited with photos and jerseys for him to sign, requests Hernández silently obliged without stopping.

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“I know what football brings, all the fame and the extra things outside the pitch,” he said. “It’s very good if they recognize me in the streets.”

But if fame is the price that comes with being Mexico’s all-time leading scorer and a starter on some of the biggest clubs in the world, Hernández will be asked to take on a new burden Saturday when he puts on the captain’s armband and leads the Galaxy into their season opener against the Houston Dynamo.

In a league built around star power, Hernández is the latest MLS supernova. And with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney having returned to Europe, Bastian Schweinsteiger retired and Carlos Vela, the reigning MVP, avoiding microphones the way Tyson Fury avoids salads, Hernández could prove to be the second-most important signing in league history after David Beckham.

“From the buzz I’ve heard, you can certainly see it and feel it and hear it,” said Gustavo Dominguez, a partner at Primetime Sports, a leading Hispanic marketing agency. “You just say ‘Chicharito,’ everybody’s going to know. You don’t have to explain any background on that type of player.

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“But I think it has a broader appeal.”

The Galaxy’s decision to pursue David Beckham — and the English soccer star’s decision to sign with them — marked a turning point for the MLS.

The Galaxy and the league are both banking on it. MLS is experiencing unprecedented growth, with two new teams joining the league this season and four more coming on line by 2022. Player salaries are also way up, and to pay for that MLS will need to negotiate a much more lucrative TV deal than the one it currently has, which expires after next season.

Hernández, good-looking, bilingual and with a personality that rivals his soccer talents, could be key to making that happen — especially since his greatest appeal is the coveted Mexican American market that has long preferred Liga MX telecasts over MLS.

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The Galaxy say they’ve sold 1,000 season-ticket packages since Hernández signed last month, but his real impact on the league will be tested in places like Houston, where the Dynamo ranked near the bottom of MLS in average attendance. However, the city’s population is 43% Hispanic and with Saturday’s game a sellout, the team’s first since May 2018, Hernández was getting much of the credit.

“I’m a middle-school teacher, and I see kids wearing Chicharito jerseys on an almost daily basis,” said Ray Latigo, a Dynamo season-ticket holder. “The Hispanic community is all over this.”

Beckham sold tickets too — but his teams also won championships. Ibrahimovic, on the other hand, scored a franchise-record 30 goals in 2019 but won just one playoff game in two seasons, extending the Galaxy’s title drought to five seasons. Home attendance declined 5% in his second season.

Hernández, who scored just once in four preseason games, knows he will ultimately be measured by the same standard.

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“Win the league, that’s what’s on my mind,” he said in Spanish. “That’s it. It’s just winning.

When LAFC’s ownership group bought out Vincent Tan’s 20% stake, the deal put the club’s value at $700 million, by far the most for an MLS franchise.

“If I score only one goal but the team wins, we are all going to win. And if I score, I don’t know, 50 goals and we don’t qualify for the playoffs it won’t do any good.”

Dominguez agrees.

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“In the end, the product’s the product,” he said. “You still need to put it on the field and show that you’re growing and that you’re doing better and you’re on the right path.

“I certainly think he could be a pivotal piece in doing that.”


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