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Finding Perspective Amid Chicharito's LA Galaxy Struggles, Unfulfilled Hype

Chicharito was supposed to be the next can't-miss star to take L.A. and MLS by storm. Amid a dreadful first season, can he make good on the fanfare that likened his signing to that of David Beckham?

Some two years had elapsed since he’d signed, and it had been a long two years. There were injuries and losses and a loan spell in Milan, and the fans who once greeted him with enthusiastic reverence had grown restless. David Beckham was no longer universally beloved. One spectator’s sign at an LA Galaxy home game in July 2009 read, “Go Home Fraud.” Another said, “Here Before, Here After, Here Despite 23.”

That same day, Beckham gestured toward fans as he walked to the locker room, and one leaped from the stands and had to be restrained by security.

At that point, the odds of Beckham being burned in effigy in the parking lot were a whole lot better than the odds of him being honored in larger-than-life bronze. Yet there he is now, in Legends Plaza outside Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., a statuesque, two-time MLS Cup champion and a Galaxy icon.

These are the relevant takeaways: No player’s future is inevitable, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results and the LA Galaxy is a big club that has the resources to solve problems.

Perhaps Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández contemplates Beckham’s trajectory every time he comes to work and sees that statue. It took Beckham two years to find his footing in L.A. Chicharito has been a Galaxy player for just eight months. It’s not too late to turn things around. The Mexican striker has that going for him, even while nothing else is. Chicharito and Beckham could have a long conversation about brutal beginnings in MLS.

Chicharito has struggled with the LA Galaxy

“In Holland, we say, ‘High trees catch a lot of wind,’” Galaxy GM Dennis te Kloese said.

The 'Little Pea’ is a high tree. At 32, he’s the leading goal scorer in the history of El Tri, and after growing up at Chivas de Guadalajara, he ventured to Europe—where Mexican success had been relatively rare. There, Chicharito won Premier League titles and started a Champions League final with Manchester United, was part of Real Madrid’s Club World Cup–winning side and scored regularly for Bayer Leverkusen. Charismatic, energetic, worldly and accomplished, he was modern Mexico’s footballing idol.

“For Javier, to be like the ideal young kid playing on Chivas, which is the most traditional team in Mexico because they [field] only Mexicans, and being an icon as a young kid scoring goals and out of the blue the owner sold him to Manchester United, it’s like a story book,” said te Kloese, who spent more than a decade working in Mexico at Chivas, Tigres UANL and the Mexican federation, where he was director of national teams.

“One of the things you see in Mexican society is that soccer is such a high priority. It goes beyond everything else,” te Kloese continued. “Javier is a guy that thrives on emotions, and could go on very high emotions and very low emotions. [Mexicans] really relate to him and had a lot of pride in a Mexican playing for Manchester United or going to Real Madrid. Soccer being so important in Mexican society, people who stand out are put on a big pedestal.”

Mexican society extends into Southern California, and so Chicharito’s signing in January—it was long-rumored and long-awaited—was massive news. Some called it the biggest MLS signing since Beckham. Others thought it might be even bigger. The announcement and Chicharito’s arrival in L.A. generated more than 15 million impressions on social media and TV, radio and online publicity worth $153 million. By early February, the Galaxy’s season-ticket renewal rate was a record 85%.

It seemed like a signing that hit the MLS sweet spot. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was off to AC Milan, and the Galaxy needed goals. Chicharito was a world-class poacher who’d benefit from a midfield featuring the likes of Cristian Pavón, Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos. He’d likely feast on naive MLS defenses. And he was a massive name, the sort of rare MLS star with his own gravitational pull.

“I know the MLS and its sponsors and different teams, they were intrigued by Javier being in MLS for years,” te Kloese told Sports Illustrated.

Imagine the build-up to Sunday’s derby against Los Angeles FC in a parallel universe, where there’s still only two weeks left in the regular season but where Banc of California Stadium is packed, Carlos Vela is healthy, the Galaxy aren’t in last place and Chicharito is delivering on his promise. The game is set to be broadcast on ABC. It would be huge. But this is not the world in which we live. The pandemic has bent reality with a pull greater than Chicharito’s, and in this strange and infuriating time, he’s gone from game-breaker to potential detriment.

Here are some more statistics attached to Chicharito’s arrival: He has one goal and no assists in 10 MLS appearances. He’s managed to put just four shots on target. In his seven starts, the Galaxy are 0–6–1. In the seven games he’s missed, mostly with a calf injury, LA is 4–2–1. The Galaxy finally won a match in which he participated last weekend, when he came on as a a sub against the Vancouver Whitecaps and shanked an 85th-minute sitter. 

The raw, exhausted anguish on Chicharito’s famous face as he lay on the grass betrayed the toll this season of failure has taken. At around $6 million per year, he is the second-highest-paid player in MLS.

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Te Kloese pointed out, however, that when USL product Kai Koreniuk scored the stoppage-time game-winner against Vancouver, Chicharito was quick to join his unheralded teammate in celebration. The icon hasn’t cut himself off. He hasn’t given up.

“He wants be part of the team. He just hasn’t found his way yet,” te Kloese acknowledged.

“What you’re seeing is what normally happens with players of his caliber, strikers of his caliber, anybody that loses their confidence or the emotional balance of positivity and things like that,” te Kloese added. “Even big players, even players that have achieved a lot, they still need a certain confidence level and believing that things are going to go their way, and then they’ll get into a flow of better results. And I think Javier is desperately looking for that.”

How did the flow stop? Why hasn’t Chicharito been able to find his form?

It’s up to te Kloese, coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Chicharito’s Galaxy teammates, LA fans, the media, etc., to determine the difference between reasons and excuses. But there’s a list of potential issues or explanations. It takes many players time to adapt to a new club in a new country. Chicharito’s season has been one of fits and starts, from the delay in getting his visa, then to the pandemic pause, and then the injury suffered during the MLS is Back Tournament that ruled him out for a month. His grandfather, a former pro with whom Chicharito was very close, died in April. His wife was pregnant throughout, and their second child was born this month.

“Normally there’s an adjustment and time getting used to a new organization and a new life, new league, everything,” te Kloese said. “It’s much quicker when you have a lot of activities and you don’t have too much time to think. You have to get going and go after things.”

Chicharito has just one goal with the LA Galaxy

It hasn’t been seamless on the field, either. Chicharito is no Zlatan, who’s unlike any target striker of his generation. The imposing and acrobatic Ibrahimovic could turn just about any pass or any half-chance into a shot on frame. The Galaxy adapted to the Swede’s unique skill set, finished fifth in 2019 and won a playoff game. It wasn’t exactly up to LA’s historic standards, but it was certainly better than this. Chicharito has been more effective finishing off a more deliberate build-up, and that’s what LA has been trying to do when he’s on the field. MLS released data a couple weeks ago showing how much slower and less direct the Galaxy have been when Chicharito plays, thus giving opposing defenses more time to organize. Either Chicharito has to adapt to the Galaxy, or the Galaxy will have to adapt to Chicharito. It’s a puzzle Schelotto hasn’t solved across his star striker’s 10 appearances.

“I think it’s an outcome of a lot of circumstances that so far, it hasn’t been good,” te Kloese said. “But we’re obviously positive that the more we play, the more we get into a somewhat normal environment for everything, not only what we’re living through but just schedule-wise and playing-wise, the more time on the field the better it is for him. He’ll get opportunities.”

The Galaxy are, by MLS standards, a high tree. No club has won more league championships. No club has signed more big names. They’re easily the most recognized MLS team abroad, and surely the most scrutinized at home. When Beckham struggled, it was news. When he finally succeeded, it was celebrated. From Cobi Jones and Jorge Campos to Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, the Galaxy have signed players who attracted attention. Some thrived and some didn’t. But the club has persisted, either by solving the problem (like with Beckham) or by moving on and reloading. Schelotto is on more of a hot seat than other MLS managers, but te Kloese said the Argentine is “very committed to making something out of this.”

And as the criticism and questions mount concerning Chicharito’s slow start, it will be up to the player and the club to do the same. There’s two years remaining on his contract.

Chicharito reacts to a missed shot

“I think he’s learned to live with it,” te Kloese said of the buffeting winds, “and he’s grown also as a human being and as a person. And I think part of turning this around is a lot that he’ll have to put into it. He’ll have to put in a lot of effort and energy, which he has more than enough. I think we should be supportive of it. I think under the current circumstances, it would be very difficult to say this is something that hasn’t worked and move on. Where can we support? Where can we be better? And he’s receptive to that and open to that.”

Receptive, sure, but it’s hard not to wonder if Chicharito remains totally committed to his MLS venture through all this adversity. There was that January video he posted of a phone call with his father, during which he called his move to L.A. “like the beginning of my retirement.” Critics seized upon the word but at the time, it seemed more like a poetic, rather than literal, choice by an emotional and poetic person. Europe’s big five leagues are the pinnacle of the sport, and Chicharito’s departure from Sevilla represented a transition. Nobody could argue that.

“This retirement could last 10 years,” he said later.

Some measure of Chicharito’s credibility is on the line now, if not a small portion of his legacy. While nobody can take his prodigious accomplishments away, it also wouldn’t look good to fail in MLS at 32. He’s better than that. And there’s still time to show it, as Beckham demonstrated a decade ago.

“Big players really need to believe that this is their league and this is where they have to settle, and whatever happened before or whatever happens after, it’s difficult first of all to underestimate the league, which is not something to be underestimated,” te Kloese said. “The quality and expectations have been higher and higher and will be still higher, and if you really put yourself into the position that this is what I belong to—this is the club I represent and this is what I'm going for at the moment—I think that’ll be very helpful.

“I think with Javier, I hope even if there’s no fans and whatever situation we’re running into and with a normal playing schedule and given the opportunity for him to create better chemistry with everything that’s surrounding him, I hope he shows what he’s capable of showing.”