No excuses: In the wake of a lost season, Chicharito might have found himself
Javier Hernández doesn’t want your sympathy.
For what? He makes millions playing a game. By his own admission, he’s been blessed to achieve everything he dreamed of as a kid.
But he could go for a little understanding because last year that dream turned into a nightmare. His grandfather died, his wife left for Australia, a calf injury sidelined him for nearly two months and his coach was fired at the end of a season that saw his new team, the Galaxy, win six games, the fewest in franchise history.
He did little to slow that collapse and scored only two goals in 12 appearances, his worst season since he was a teenager playing for his hometown team in the Mexican league. And it all happened against the backdrop of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
“I touched rock bottom,” he said. “I lived things that normally you live through [in] five, 10 years, you know what I mean? It’s not an excuse. It’s reality. And the reality is I didn’t take responsibility. I wasn’t able to handle all of that.”
If such a precipitous fall can happen in the span of a season, Hernández believes the climb back can be made just as quickly. And making it happen is a mission he has embraced with the faith and fervor of a 12-step program, first admitting his failings, then charting his redemption.
“When the end of the season came, I did a very profound critique. About my life, about myself. And I just decided that I can do much, much better,” he said. “In the emotional and very spiritual side, when COVID hit, it was like a perfect time to expose the things that I haven’t worked with.
“I took full responsibility of what is in my hands. My body, my mind, my emotions and I want to push them beyond, I don’t even want to even say limits. Because for me that doesn’t exist.”
To help him, Hernández assembled a team that includes a nutritionist, a trainer and someone he refers to as his “emotional coach.” Another person, who handles social media accounts, has been tracking the team’s progress with frequent Instagram posts that show Hernández lifting weights, stretching and running in the Hollywood Hills.
“I haven’t worked this hard in my whole life,” he said. “I haven’t trusted the correct people that can help me to elevate my performances, my sleep, my health, my food and my relationships.”
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The message, one Hernández wants the team and its supporters to hear and one he repeated a dozen times in a wide-ranging telephone interview, is that he takes ownership of his dismal MLS debut.
“I have a big debt with my club. I have a big debt with my fans, with the Galaxy family,” he said.
“I’m 32,” he continued. “But the thing is, there’s so many avenues that show you that age is a number.”
“Seven rings, 10 Super Bowls. He’s truly an inspiration,” he said. “He’s a mirror to all in sports. Like, ‘Man, you can do it!’ ”
Hernández had never known failure before last year. Mexico’s all-time leading scorer led El Tri to the knockout stages of three consecutive World Cups and played for some of the top teams in Europe. He scored in double digits six times for Manchester United and Bayern Leverkusen.
So he was surprised by the club-record transfer — worth nearly $10 million — that sent him from Sevilla of Spain’s La Liga to the Galaxy last winter. When he arrived, the expectations were enormous.
On the field, the striker was asked to fill the impossibly large boots of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and revive a team that was scuffling through a historic slump. Off the field, it was hoped his charisma and popularity would raise the team’s profile in Southern California’s huge Mexican American community, which in recent years has abandoned the Galaxy for LAFC and its Mexican star, Carlos Vela.
Neither goal was realized with the Galaxy missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons while Hernández’s jersey, the second-best-selling shirt in MLS, trailed Vela’s.
“With very few exceptions, every international transfer is always a challenge,” said Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, who first met Hernández when he and Vela played together in the Chivas academy in Mexico, then brought him to MLS 16 years later. “To go from one culture to another is, for everybody, on and off the field, a challenge. Obviously the expectations, when he came in, didn’t come out.
“It speaks very highly of him that he takes responsibility, It speaks very highly of him that he takes ownership of what he needs to do.”
Hernández — known as Chicharito, the diminutive of Chicharo, Spanish for little green pea and the nickname his father Javier used during an 18-year playing career — struggled from the start with the Galaxy and failed to put a shot on goal in his first two games.
I have a big debt with my club. I have a big debt with my fans, with the Galaxy family
— Galaxy striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández
Frustrated, he skipped a packed news conference after the second game and six days later the MLS season was paused four months because of COVID-19. A month into that break his grandfather Tomás Balcázar, who scored for Mexico in the 1954 World Cup, died at 88.
“I experienced, for the first time, the death of someone very close to me,” said Hernández, who could not return home for the memorial service because of the coronavirus. “It hit me in very different ways.”
When the Galaxy resumed training in June, Hernández showed up overweight and out of shape. He played one game in the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando, Fla., where he scored his first goal, before sustaining a grade 2 tear of his right calf in practice. It was the most serious injury of his career.
Just as painful was the fact the Galaxy lost only one of the six games he missed but didn’t win any of the first six he played in after returning. He eventually was benched by coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who was sacked with three games left in the season.
Hernández said he took the firing hard and apologized to the coach and his staff.
“I need[ed] to go truly and fully deep in myself to see what the hell was going on with me,” he said. “I said, ‘Look Guillermo, I’m so sorry that things ended in this way. This scenario is mostly my responsibility because I could have done much better.’ ”
As the on-field struggles played out in public, Hernández’s wife, model Sarah Kohan, took the couple’s two young children, 20-month-old Noah and 4-month-old Nala, home to Australia.
“Of course, I miss them,” Hernández said. “I will love to be with my kids, obviously.”
Hernández, stranded alone in a country that was not his home, returned to Mexico and spent the holidays with his family in Guadalajara.
There were times, Hernández said, when he felt overwhelmed. He said he followed his grandfather and father into soccer because he loved the sport, not for the riches and recognition that came with that.
“I’m just a human!” he said, exasperated. “Every famous person, it’s like you sign an invisible contract with the fame. Of course, it’s a responsibility that you’re going to take. But that’s not against being a human.
“We’re all humans, you know?”
At times last season that’s all Hernández wanted to be — human.
“There are moments in life when you go through bumps… everyone has them,” Galaxy captain Jonathan dos Santos, Hernández’s former West Hollywood neighbor and longtime teammate with the Mexican national team, told The Times’ Jad El Reda.
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Te Kloese has known Hernández long enough to be confident those bumps will heal.
“I’ve always seen him as a kid that, out of difficulty, has found an opportunity to show something when people start doubting him or when people start questioning him,” he said. “That’s when he comes back strongest. I’m 100% sure we’ll see it here also.”
Dos Santos agreed.
“I’ve never seen him so good,” he said. “He is looking forward to doing great things this year. He is a different player from the others and we are going to need him this year.”
Dos Santos weathered his own struggles in 2020. He had surgery for a hernia injury that limited him to seven starts and he was so frustrated he briefly considered retirement.
Hernández said that thought never crossed his mind.
“Not even a chance,” he said. “I’m not a quitter. Completely the opposite. I touched rock bottom. There’s nothing else [but] to go up, you know?
“So it’s like a challenge.”
One Hernández is meeting head on.
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