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Column: Javier “Chicharito” Hernández says he’s in ‘right place at right time’ as Galaxy’s brightest star

He’s a classic center forward, an out-and-out striker, and the all-time leading scorer of the Mexican national team, but Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s initial contribution as a member of the Galaxy was an assist.

During his first interview since signing with the team, he served up a perfect simile to describe his arrival onto Los Angeles’ sports scene, which will be officially announced Tuesday.

“Like when people describe me playing,” Hernández said. “You know, that he’s always in the right place at the right time.”

The line was probably rehearsed, and maybe a little cheesy. But also undeniably accurate.

His exile from Sevilla’s lineup made finding somewhere else to play necessary. His demotion came at a time when Major League Soccer’s reputation had evolved to where a 31-year-old player of his stature would consider playing in the league.

“It was the right time, the right opportunity,” said Hernández, who has played for Chivas of Mexico, Manchester United of England, Real Madrid of Spain and Bayer Leverkusen of Germany.

A foreign player signing with an MLS team used to be equated with the abatement of any ambition beyond cashing checks.

David Beckham knew this when he signed with the Galaxy in 2007. Beckham had stepped down as the captain of England’s national team the previous year, and his move to MLS was expected to more or less mark the end of his international career. However, Beckham decided to try to play his way back on to the England roster ahead of the 2010 World Cup. As part of that effort, he twice abandoned the Galaxy for extended loan spells with AC Milan of Italy. The reason was clear: Proving to then-England manager Fabio Capello that he was still a top player required him to play in a better league.

The stigma has been removed in recent years, so much so that Jonathan dos Santos and Uriel Antuna actually improved their standings with the Mexican national team while playing for the Galaxy.

“Exactly, exactly,” Hernández said.

Hernández also pointed to instances where already-established stars remained globally relevant after moving to MLS.

Carlos Vela was courted by European power Barcelona after his first season with LAFC in 2018. Nicolás Lodeiro has remained a part of Uruguay’s national team since moving to the Seattle Sounders in 2016. Sebastian Giovinco was called back to the Italian national team after playing four seasons with Toronto FC.

“Jonathan told me the league is very underrated,” Hernández said. “I really believe you don’t go there to retire.”

Hernández appeared in only three games for Mexico last year; he wasn’t part of the team for the Gold Cup or CONCACAF Nations League. He wouldn’t say if he wanted to play in the 2022 World Cup, sidestepping the question by responding, “Right now, my mind is completely on the L.A. Galaxy.”

Whatever he wants, his move to MLS should increase the chances of him representing Mexico again. Manager Tata Martino would surely be more inclined to call him up if he is scoring goals for the Galaxy rather than sitting on the bench with Sevilla.

Martino won an MLS Cup with Atlanta United.

Nonetheless, Hernández understands his move will be disparaged in some circles.

“I’m going to be playing,” he said. “That’s what I want in my life. People are going to say it was because I couldn’t make it [in Europe], but sometimes in football there are things that are not in your hands. The last two years, the managers decided on giving confidence to other players rather than me. And now, the L.A. Galaxy, the manager of the club and the league, are telling me, ‘Look, Javier, we want to give you all the trust, all the confidence to help us,’ and that’s why I’m taking this opportunity.”

Hernández’s contract with the Galaxy is for three years and includes an option for a fourth. He will be paid an annual base salary of $6 million.

The Galaxy will be looking for him to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker who scored 52 goals in 56 games the last two seasons. Ibrahimovic is now playing for AC Milan.

Hernández’s instincts and movements in the penalty box represent a fraction of his value. A third-generation national team player — his father, also named Javier Hernández, was nicknamed “Chicharo” — he is the most popular player from his country over the last decade and is expected to help the Galaxy attract an audience that remains loyal to Liga MX. Hernández is also comfortably bilingual and known to be media savvy.

“I’m going to be able to play in front of a lot of Mexican fans, Galaxy fans, American fans,” he said. “That’s what’s great about football. They give you a lot of opportunities.”

The Galaxy’s courtship of Hernández started even before he moved in September from West Ham of England to Sevilla. But Hernández scored only once in nine matches in Spain’s La Liga, which resulted in his benching. Not included in Sevilla’s long-term plans, Hernández was open to another transfer after only four months.

The Galaxy swept in. General manager Dennis te Kloese, coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and technical director Jovan Kirovski traveled to Spain to sell Hernández on the Galaxy and close the deal.

The high-profile acquisition will help the Galaxy remain relevant after expansion franchise LAFC stole its place as the city’s most popular soccer team over the last two years.

Hernández is already participating in the rivalry, exchanging light-hearted banter with Vela. Hernández and Vela have been close friends since they were teenagers in Chivas’ youth academy.

Vela joked during a recent interview with ESPN that if Hernández scores against LAFC, “I will score one more.”

Hernández had a playful response.

“It doesn’t matter if he scores or doesn’t score,” Hernández said. “L.A. Galaxy is the biggest [club] and will win more championships than them, definitely.”

What’s quickly become MLS’s best rivalry game should remain the league’s most spirited “Clasico.”

Hernández was in the right place at the right time to ensure that would be the case. MLS was, too.

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