By Ridge Mahoney
More than a decade after launching his pro career, Daniel Hernandez came home.
Growing up in Tyler, Texas and playing college ball for Coach Schellas Hyndman at SMU, he’d dreamed of playing in MLS for Dallas long before Hyndman left the college game more than two years go. When Hyndman finally did take over in Dallas midway through the 2008 season, Hernandez began to believe that one day soon it might finally happen.
While playing for the Galaxy, Tampa Bay, the MetroStars and New England from 1998 to 2003, the opportunity never arose. The arrival of Shalrie Joseph prompted the Revs to lose interest, so he headed to Mexico to play for Necaxa. He came back to the Revs, then left again for Mexico in 2007 to play for Puebla and Chiapas. When his contract ran out and not many teams seemed anxious to sign him, the choice seemed obvious.
“I’ve played lots of places in my professional career, and when I was in-between contracts and I knew he was here, I really wanted to be re-united with him and I wanted to be back home,” said Hernandez of how FCD landed him prior to the 2009 season.
“This is my hometown and I was always keeping up with Dallas, seeing what they were doing, and for some reason I could never get here. So last year there were some problems in Mexico, the team was struggling, the coach needed some help and I came in and trained with the team. Fortunately I was coming into the team when the coach was already making some changes.”
Hyndman had begun a major overhaul of the team he’d inherited from Steve Morrow. Defender Ugo Ihemelu, attacker David Ferreira, forward Milton Rodriguez, and left back Jair Benitez are among more than a dozen players acquired who have assumed prominent roles on the team. And while Hyndman is button-popping proud of what his players have accomplished, he admits there’s a special place for his team captain.
“The guy that really made things happen for us is Daniel Hernandez,” says Hyndman, who guided Hernandez onto the football team SMU as a field-goal kicker and got him a scholarship after he’d unexpectedly left Creighton just before the start of preseason training his freshman year.
“He has tremendous experience. As you know he played for me at SMU and he and his family go back a long way. He’s a wonderful captain. It’s not just the talk, he also walks the walk. He trains extremely hard, he’s very motivated. Guys come to him, whether it’s the Latino players or players just coming out of college, he’s been there. He’s a great leader.”
Hernandez kicked well enough in tryouts with the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills to be invited to their preseason camps, but couldn’t seriously consider an NFL career unless his soccer aspirations fell apart.
“My tryouts went pretty well, but obviously I couldn’t leave my soccer career to try and make it as a field-goal kicker,” he says. “Soccer is my passion and so if I had a chance to play soccer I wasn’t going to mess it up with something else.”
MLS coaches admired his toughness and skill on the ball -- he’d played attacking mid in college and had to learn the defensive nuances of pro ball -- and also sometimes shook their heads at rough, careless fouls and numerous cautions. At Necaxa, he encountered some anti-American sentiment and just rode it out until he’d proved he belonged in a competitive environment that was foreign, literally and figuratively, to U.S. players.
“When I first got down there, even though I have Mexican background and spoke Spanish and grew up in a Mexican culture, I was still considered a gringo to some people,” he says. “There were a couple of players I had to deal with that with in the preseason, but after the preseason moved on, I don’t think anybody had an issue with it. 'He’s a gringo, he’s an American, he can’t play soccer,' you know, that idea passed by pretty quickly. It wasn’t no huge deal. After that I never came across any issues.”
The issue Sunday will be bringing his hometown team its first MLS Cup. His family and friends won’t be traveling to Toronto, but his brother Nico – a former SMU teammate who has been confined to a wheelchair from injuries suffered in a 1998 car accident – will host a watch party at his club, 220 Lounge. A crowd of more than 100 is expected to see if the captain can help bring home a trophy for his old college coach.
“So at the last second, the coach saved me and got me into SMU, a school I had looked up to all my life,” Hernandez said. “Being back at home, and playing two sports like I always wanted to do, was all I could ask for. It wasn’t the exact same situation but it was similar, the way I got to SMU and the way I came back to FC Dallas.
“He never asked me why I left Creighton, he never needed any reasons. He said, ‘I don’t want to know, you’re here now, and I know what type of person you are.’ When guys come to our team they have a clean slate and start off fresh. The past is the past and they start from here. He’s a great judge of character, as you can see from the way he rebuilt this team from the middle of last year to now.”