Everything changed with David Beckham. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the growth of Major League Soccer over the past decade, but nothing accelerated progress quite like the landmark arrival of the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star 10 years ago.
Indeed, MLS’s 24-year history can be charted as pre-Beckham and post-Beckham. The Englishman did more for the reputation of North American soccer than any other player had or has since, forging a route across the Atlantic for some of Europe’s biggest names to follow. Not quite a pioneer, but certainly a symbolic vanguard.
The Beckham effect
It’s been over four years since Beckham last pulled on an LA Galaxy shirt, though. MLS has changed rather a lot in that time, but one thing hasn’t – the inherent hankering for big-name signings. That, more than anything else, is used as a gauge of the league’s development.
Of course, that’s not to say MLS hasn’t managed to lure big names in the post-Beckham era. David Villa, Kaka, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos, Sebastian Giovinco, and the native Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, just to name a few, have all made the move to the league in recent years. But none of those names have had the impact of Beckham. This is why MLS must target Javier Hernandez.
The Mexican striker has long been considered the ideal signing for an MLS club looking to plant its flag in the ground, much like the LA Galaxy did with Beckham. Speculation has persisted for years that he could make the move to North America, yet nothing has come of it. Now, however, the opportunity would appear to be there.
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Reports in Germany claim Bayer Leverkusen are willing to sell Hernandez in the summer window, with the Bundesliga club putting a £21million price tag on the striker’s head. That would make Hernandez the most expensive signing in MLS history by quite some distance, with the current record held by the £6million Atlanta United winger Miguel Almiron, but the 28-year-old would be worth such a hefty fee.
Any MLS club successful in luring Hernandez wouldn’t just be buying a player proven at the top level of the European and international game, but a one-man marketing machine as well. While MLS has made great strides in terms of supporter engagement over the past decade or so the Latin population – a key demographic for North American soccer – has yet to be truly energised by the league. Hernandez could change that.
Hernandez has an American dream
The player himself is open to the idea of an MLS move, although he might take some convincing on timeframe. “The MLS is for me already attractive,” Hernandez admitted in an interview with Kicker earlier this month. “But you never know what will happen in three, four or five years. Never say never.”
And so the prospect of bringing Hernandez to MLS is a very real one, not like the pipe dream concepts of signing Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi that are often aired. It seems likely that the Mexican will at one point or another make the move to North America, but a Hernandez in his prime would be much more valuable than a Hernandez in the twilight of his career. That’s why they must act now.
Every team in MLS could use a natural finisher like Hernandez, but where could he realistically pitch up? New York City FC have one free Designated Player spot following the exit of Frank Lampard at the end of last season, but with Villa already on their roster another centre-forward might not be much of a priority.
The LA Galaxy, MLS’s original marquee side, are in the process of rebuilding their squad over the off-season, and so they could feasibly make a play for Hernandez. If the Mexican is to make the move to the West coast, though, Los Angeles FC would appear to have the edge. Of course, they don’t enter MLS until next year, but are nonetheless lining up big-name signings as they look to make a splash. Ripples would be felt across the league were they to capture Hernandez.
Then there’s the more cynical way of looking at potential destinations, based on where the Mexican would make the biggest commercial impression. Houston’s Hispanic population touches on one million, potentially making the Houston Dynamo a good fit. Chicago is another American city with a large Hispanic and Latino population, and an MLS club to boot. Both the Dynamo and the Fire likely wouldn’t have the money to move for Hernandez, but they are good examples of how other factors could decide where the striker ends up.
Hernandez is not Beckham, but his arrival in MLS could signal a new era for North American soccer. There will be plenty of interested parties in the Mexican should he be put on the market, but if a race for the signature of Hernandez materialises MLS must come out on top.