By Ridge Mahoney
The good start for Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez at Bayer Leverkusen is bad news for U.S. soccer fans.
What’s bad about it? In a U.S.-centric sense, everything. No longer is Hernandez an erratic player whose pedigree (his father played professionally) and high-profile persona exceeds his laudable accomplishments. Less than three months into his first season in the German Bundesliga, he’s scored 10 goals in all competitions and drew praise from club CEO Michael Schade, who said at the SPONSORs Club Manager Summit 2015, “He is a complete merchandise package.
“He is a legend in Mexico. The media hype he has created is unbelievable. He has exceeded all our expectations, for the Bayer company, too.”
Leverkusen has long sought out international players who could promote its brand as well as generate results. Some panned out as players, some were mainly marketing tools. It knew well the limitations of former USA international Frankie Hejduk when it signed him in 1998, but used him in promotional programs while it sorted out his soccer attributes.
One newspaper showed a cartoon of Hejduk on a surfboard, riding a wave as it crashed over the lip of the BayArena. The team’s scoring star at the time, international Ulf Kirsten, several times expressed admiration for Hejduk’s workrate and once saluted him in a goal celebration by spreading his arms wide and leaning back and forth as if on a surfboard. Several teammates, and Hejduk, of course, joined in.
Hejduk left Leverkusen in 2003 after playing just 19 first-team games and returned to MLS to play in Columbus, which he helped win its only MLS Cup in 2008 and now works as a goodwill ambassador. Hernandez -- who wears the No. 7 jersey adorned by "Chicharito" on the back -- may not stay in Germany as long but it’s looking like a shrewd move for production as well as publicity. From the American perspective, that’s not good.
In the early part of the last decade, it didn’t seem to matter how many Mexicans and Americans were playing in Europe or in their domestic leagues; the U.S. won more than its share of head-to-head encounters. That is no longer the case. The psychological edge has worn away. Mexican players returning to North America to play in the Gold Cup or qualifying matches seldom struggle with jet lag and climate changes as did their many of their predecessors, and those who stay at home to play in Liga MX compete in a competitive league stocked with several dozen players good enough to play for El Tri.
Mexico needed a spectacular goal in overtime by Paul Aguilar to down the USA, 3-2, last month in the Concacaf Cup at the Rose Bowl, but seldom did the American attackers match their Mexican counterparts. Hernandez opened the scoring in the 10th minute and Oribe Peralta of Club America tallied in the first period of overtime. The injury absence of Giovani Dos Santos didn’t impair Mexico’s ability to penetrate the final third and get chances. It outshot the USA. 23-14 and controlled more than 63 percent of the possession.
(For the record, 10 of the 23 Mexican players chosen by former head coach Ricardo Ferretti for the Concacaf Cup play for European clubs. Jurgen Klinsmann selected nine Euro-based players and two who are employed by Mexican teams. None of them were forwards.)
The ascendancy of Hernandez contrasts with the fortunes of several U.S. goalscorers: Clint Dempsey slipped this year from very solid performances in 2014, Jozy Altidore remains a hit-or-miss proposition, and the heart and hard work of Chris Wondolowski are only moderately productive at the international level.
So dire is the U.S. situation up front that Galaxy striker Alan Gordon has been recalled, again, for qualifiers against St. Vincent & The Grenadines (on Friday) and Trinidad & Tobago (Tuesday). Gordon is a tough, honest player who can battle with anyone, but he started only seven of 29 league games for the Galaxy in 2015.
Youth is being served for the qualifiers in forwards Bobby Wood (he turns 23 next week) and Jordan Morris (21). Wood has already scored three international goals – including an overtime goal at the Rose Bowl last month -- and Morris netted his first goal at the senior level last April against Mexico in a friendly. They have yet to play in a Concacaf World Cup qualifier. As for Euro club experience, Wood plays for Union Berlin in Bundesliga 2.
Hernandez still has much to prove at Leverkusen, yet already rumors have surfaced he could be on his way to Chelsea, a move he might be ready for. Jumping from Chivas to Manchester United at age 21 heaped too much attention and expectation on a player still honing his abilities, and a loan to Real Madrid hardly lessened the burden to produce. Still he scored 44 goals for two of the world’s biggest clubs, and despite his up-and-down performances at the club level he’s managed to tuck away 42 goals for Mexico. On the all-time list he is second behind Jared Borgetti (46). At 26, he seems certain to not only overtake Borgetti but top his mark by a considerable margin.
Jesus Corona is a 22-year-old attacker who's been showing great potential. Like Mexico teammates Hector Herrera and Miguel Layun, Corona plays for Porto, and along with Hernandez illustrates how the border nations compare on their front lines. Corona is on the roster named by new Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio for Mexico's qualifiers this month against Honduras and El Salvador. Named to that squad along with Hernandez and Peralta were Raul Jimenez of Benfica and Carlos Vela of Real Sociedad.