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Galaxy landing ‘Chicharito’ fills a hole on and off pitch

It was early morning on the first Tuesday of the month and Dennis te Kloese, seven days into his second full year as general manager of the Galaxy, was driving his kids to school when his cellphone rang.

Training camp was less than two weeks away and he had yet to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the larger-than-life captain who had scored 30 goals on the field and kept the team in the headlines off it.

“Obviously we have a big decision to make on our striker,” Te Kloese said. “We need the right fit and the right numbers; the right guy that fits the culture, style and the idea that we have.”

And the right guy, he told the caller, was Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. But he wasn’t available right now, the Galaxy were told, Hernández having only recently moved from England’s West Ham United to Sevilla in Spain.

Te Kloese had other options — he had talked to Mexico’s Club America about Nico Castillo, for instance — but Hernández was the guy he wanted even though a deal, he said, was “not even close.”

By the time Te Kloese’s kids had gotten out of school that had changed. By the end of that week, the outline of an agreement was in place, one that will bring Hernández to Major League Soccer for a franchise-record $10-million transfer fee and a three-year contract with a fourth-year option that will guarantee him $6 million a season. With available bonuses of approximately $1.5 million, he could top Ibrahimovic’s MLS record of $7.2 million.

For the Galaxy, an ambitious franchise whose implausible signings of David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Gio dos Santos, Steven Gerrard and Ibrahimovic took MLS from a financially troubled league of domestic talent to an international brand, the acquisition of Hernández could prove equally monumental.

At 31, it’s unlikely he’ll replace Ibrahimovic’s 30 goals by himself. He’s topped 20 in a season just once since leaving Chivas of Guadalajara, where Te Kloese once worked. Hernández hasn’t scored more than eight goals in a season since leaving Germany and Bayer Leverkusen in 2017.

He hasn’t played much either, so a reunion with Te Kloese and a starring role in the pressing 4-3-3 style Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto prefers could reanimate a club career that hasn’t lived up to its promise.

Off the field Hernández has a chance to do what even Beckham and Ibrahimovic could not by making the Galaxy relevant to the more than 6 million Mexican Americans who live in Southern California.

Tim Leiweke, the former president of AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, had long pursued Dos Santos to open doors in the Mexican American community at public events and supermarket openings. When Dos Santos finally got here in 2015, he appeared to favor bar closings over supermarket openings and Te Kloese wound up buying out the final $6.5 million of his contract.

Hernández, the Mexican national team’s all-time leading scorer, is the anti-Dos Santos. He drops to his knees and prays at the center circle before games, and his career hasn’t been tainted by even a hint of scandal. It doesn’t hurt that his national team jersey has been among the best-selling soccer shirts among Southern California’s Hispanic fans since he made his debut with El Tri in 2009.

In Hernández the Galaxy might also have found a way to challenge LAFC, the upstart neighborhood rival who won a Supporters’ Shield, put together the best regular season in MLS history and played to 37 consecutive sellouts in its first two seasons with its own Mexican star, Carlos Vela.

Vela, not insignificantly, talked up the league to his World Cup teammate. With both Hernández and Alan Pulido, who moved from Guadalajara to Sporting Kansas City this winter, joining Vela in MLS, the league is becoming an option for Mexicans who have traditionally looked down on it.

Former Galaxy star Landon Donovan, who played one season in Mexico, isn’t surprised.

“Every one of them came up to me at some point and said, ‘Can you get me to MLS?’,” Donovan said of his teammates at Leon. “In the past the gap in wages was so big that it just made too much sense to play in Mexico. Now it’s very small or it’s negligible. Now they want to come play here.

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“It’s a great opportunity from a lifestyle perspective. It’s a dream for them in a lot of cases.”

The signing of Hernández was certainly a dream come true for Te Kloese, whose team will begin training camp Monday barely resembling the one that was bounced from the playoffs last fall.

Ibrahimovic, Favio Alvarez and Uriel Antuna are gone, representing 39 of the Galaxy’s 58 goals from last season. Defenders Dave Romney and Diego Polenta, who appeared in 40 games combined last season, have also left, while popular midfielder Romain Alessandrini is out of contract.

In their place Te Kloese added Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai, who scored 18 goals in two seasons with the Chicago Fire; defenders Emiliano Insúa and Danilo Acosta; and locker room leadership in former MLS All-Star Sacha Kljestan. They join a solid core anchored by midfielders Jonathan dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget, Argentine attacker Cristian Pavón and goalkeeper David Bingham.

When Te Kloese joined the Galaxy from the Mexican national federation before last season, he said he would need three years to build the team he and Schelotto wanted. Thirteen months later, the signing of Hernández has him ahead of schedule.

“The Galaxy has a great history of winning prizes and being a team that is always a front-runner,” Te Kloese said. “We have to live up to that.”

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