Newest MLS star will be judged by goals, trophies

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the Mexican national team's all-time top scorer, was introduced as an LA Galaxy player this week. (Harry How/Getty)
Javier «Chicharito» Hernandez, the Mexican national team’s all-time top scorer, was introduced as an LA Galaxy player this week. (Harry How/Getty)

The intimate and emotional video of a phone conversation between Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and his parents — a clip that took American and Mexican soccer Twitter by storm earlier this week — was a little bit like a Rorschach test. You see what you want to see.

For those who already believe that Major League Soccer, the league El Tri’s all-time leader scorer has joined after completing a transfer to the LA Galaxy from Sevilla, isn’t worth their time, the only thing they heard was Chicharito saving that leaving Europe for Southern California after a decade of scoring goals at his sport’s highest level was “the beginning of my retirement.” It only confirmed their view of MLS as the place where once-great players go to finish their careers.

The problem is, that isn’t what he said. Anyone who actually watched the entirety of the moving exchange on his YouTube show Naked Humans understood exactly what Hernandez meant. Nobody even had to guess, because in the next breath, Chicharito himself made it clear. “We’re retiring,” he told his father, “from the European dream.”

As much as we all now live in a time when nuance has given way to the hottest possible take, this is an important distinction. It’s no knock against MLS that Hernandez was feeling somewhat bittersweet as the end of his near decade playing for and against some of the best clubs on the planet approached. It’s an understandable reaction to a chapter of his life closing. Chicharito broke into European soccer at 21 with Manchester United, then the biggest and best-known sports team anywhere with the possible exception of Real Madrid — the team to which he moved next.

Stops at more humble clubs followed. But while Bayer Leverkusen, West Ham and Sevilla may have been a clear step down from the superpowers he represented in Manchester and Madrid, he was still regularly facing giants in league play.

It’s no secret that MLS isn’t in that stratosphere yet. Who exactly is pretending otherwise? The United States and Canada’s top league is getting better on and especially off the field, yet for all the progress MLS has made through its 25-year history, tripling in size over that span, it’s still a decade or two away (at least) from becoming a league of choice for the world’s truly elite performers.

That’s simply the reality Hernandez was speaking to in that video. It’s a non-insignificant part of the reason the 31-year-old didn’t make the move back to North America sooner, despite multiple previous opportunities, and despite having long been regarded as uniquely positioned to capitalize in the U.S. on his status as the most prominent and popular Mexican national teamer. He could’ve cashed in years ago, but preferred to play at the highest level as long as possible. He’s going to miss it. Nothing wrong with that.

At his introductory press conference on Thursday, Hernandez attempted to clarify his remarks. “In my country, we love and we are obsessed with drama,” he said. “So when you say ‘retirement’, it’s like ‘oh, tomorrow he’s going to announce [his] retirement.’

“They didn’t really listen to what I said.”

True. But, the onus now is on Hernandez to perform. He arrived in Los Angeles with a reputation as a hard worker, and his movement off the ball alone should lead to plenty of scoring chances against MLS defenders.

If he’s not sufficiently motivated, it won’t be hard to spot. MLS isn’t kind to players who aren’t engaged, no matter who they are or what they accomplished before. Galaxy legends David Beckham and Robbie Keane continued to excel internationally after moving to MLS. So has Hernandez’s Galaxy and Mexico teammate Jonathan dos Santos. Dos Santos’ older brother, Giovani, on the other hand, never fully committed himself and was bought out of the final year of his contract as a result.

Only time will tell which way Chicharito goes, but for now he still deserves the benefit of the doubt. How Hernandez truly views his move to MLS will become apparent soon enough, with goals and trophies — not words on a video — the only measures that matter.

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