There have been player signings in MLS that embody a perfect fit. There have been marquee player signings in MLS that make waves globally. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's joining the L.A. Galaxy immediately takes its place at or near the top of both lists.
He's been the signing MLS has coveted for years, and he would've been an ideal fit for the likes of the Chicago Fire or Houston Dynamo, too. But instead he's in Los Angeles, where the biggest stars tend to wind up and where Mexican icons can be revered. As first reported by SI's Grant Wahl, Chicharito has arrived on a $9.4 million transfer fee, and he's signed a three-year guaranteed contract worth $6 million per season with incentives that could make him the highest-paid player in the league.
Bruce Arena recently told ESPN that while Chicharito, a long-desired target of the Galaxy (and he would know), would be "a natural in this market," he wouldn't be the best player in MLS. So if you're wondering why, at 31 and three years removed from his last double-digit scoring season, Chicharito is worth that expenditure, it's because his value extends beyond the field.
Mexico's men's national team vastly outdraws the U.S. men's national team on U.S. soil. Ratings for Liga MX and the Mexican national team dwarf those of MLS and the USMNT in the United States. The demand for a quality, Mexican product on the field is clear, and in El Tri's all-time leading scorer, the Galaxy surely have landed that. Would it be ideal had this happened a few years prior? Of course. But 31 is not at all too late for a player of Chicharito's caliber, box-office allure and ability to resonate with the fan base, especially when considering the main attraction he's replacing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is 38.
“There are not only bigger numbers of die-hard Mexico fans in American than there are [U.S.] fans, but the passion that they have is unlike anything other sports in this country can understand. And you see it every time Mexico plays in the States,” Galaxy and U.S. national team great Landon Donovan told SI's Brian Straus for a story about the Mexican national team's clout on U.S. soil prior to the 2018 World Cup.
It's worth remembering that Carlos Vela, Chicharito's new chief rival, countryman and longtime friend, had gone four years without reaching double digits in goals prior to his arrival at LAFC. All he's done since is score 50 goals in two seasons, including 36 between the regular season and playoffs last season. They're different players with different skill sets and needs, but the template is there for Chicharito to be among the league's top scorers in 2020 and beyond.
The tone of El Trafico, which has become MLS's premier must-see rivalry, will change significantly. For the last two years it was quite adversarial, with Ibrahimovic stoking the flames with his trash talk. Chicharito stepping into Ibrahimovic's role doesn't signal a detente, but there figures to be less focus on the venom and more emphasis on the fortunes of the two Mexican protagonists within the context of the results.
As much as this is a smash-hit signing for MLS at this point in time, it's also about an identity and legacy play for the Galaxy. Despite the club's regular financial outlay and five league titles, the Galaxy haven't won MLS Cup or even reached the final since 2014, instead watching as other ambitious clubs like Portland, Seattle, Atlanta and Toronto have lifted the trophy. They haven't won a Supporters' Shield since 2011. They've seen their new crosstown neighbor, LAFC, set regular-season records and land paradigm-changing and record-setting players of their own.
No matter the challengers to their throne as the league's box-office king, though, they remain the standard-bearer at luring marquee names and attaching them to their brand.
David Beckham was the original Designated Player, with his game-changing arrival signaling the league's effort to secure international appeal and acclaim. Robbie Keane followed and remains arguably the most impactful on-field signing in league history, given what he accomplished in the Galaxy's three MLS Cup-winning years in four seasons between 2011-2014. Without him, it's possible–even likely–the Beckham-Donovan teams don't wind up winning anything. Ibrahimovic made every Galaxy game a must-see event, and while he didn't win any trophies with the club, his every move was entertainment fodder and his 53 goals in 58 games validated the hype surrounding his arrival.
The Galaxy's proper-player-signing identity long predates the DP era. The concerted effort to sign Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos in 1996 resulted in the league meeting his demands to buy him a Ferrari given how important of a connection the Mexican goalkeeper had with the fan base's demographic.
As MLS executive Todd Durbin recalled for SI.com in our oral history of the first MLS season, the inaugural Galaxy home game was an eye-opening, learning experience.
"They were announcing each player as he ran out," Durbin said. "'Starting center back Dan Calichmann,' and there was a smattering of applause. 'Robin Fraser,' a bit of applause. Then they announce Jorge Campos and the place just erupts.
"After the weekend Jorge says, 'What’d you guys think about the game?' He didn’t say it literally, but the basic message was: There were 69,000 people in the stadium and only 2,000 of them knew my teammates; the other 67,000 knew me. If you’d like me to return I would like to have a Ferrari."
The Galaxy have always gotten it. And 24 years later, that remains the case–albeit replacing a Ferrari with a lucrative contract. Chicharito has the potential to be beloved among Galaxy supporters like no other player before him, and the club is banking on him resonating as such.
“The LA Galaxy continue to pursue top talent across the world that will improve our team,” Galaxy president Chris Klein said in a statement that didn't mince words. “Javier is one of most successful players in our region and an iconic figure in this community. The LA Galaxy have represented Los Angeles and have been the benchmark in Major League Soccer since 1996, and our pursuit of the world’s best players for our club will continue to play a part in our success. We are excited to add Javier to our club and look forward to him representing the LA Galaxy in our stadium and in the Los Angeles community.”
Not all of the club's big moves have panned out, of course. Steven Gerrard was largely a very expensive bust. Giovani Dos Santos was bought out of his contract so the club could remain roster compliant with three other preferred Designated Players.
Chicharito is as bust-proof as it gets for a signing of this magnitude, though. The risk factor isn't high at all when considering what he represents for so many Galaxy fans on both sides of the border. As the Galaxy boast in their video announcement of his signing: "He's a dreamer. ... He's one of us."