Fans filled Field in Columbus, ready to applaud their hero. So many times, they had cheered Lucas Zelarayán, the clever midfielder who had engineered much of the Columbus Crew’s 2020 MLS Cup run. This time, though, ahead of a Leagues Cup match against Club América, Zelarayán was in sneakers instead of boots.

It was an effort to send him off the right way, with Zelarayán leaving to join Al-Fateh in the Saudi Pro League. But it was fair for supporters to wonder about their team’s ambitions. Concerns were quickly settled when Columbus beat the vaunted Liga MX side 4-1 to top their Leagues Cup group thanks to two goals from Cucho Hernández.

“We all have a huge love for Lucas, and his departure was tough for everyone, but we’ve got to keep going this year,” Hernández said last week.

“Ultimately, they pay us to do our job, to win games, to earn trophies. I took responsibility after we didn’t have Lucas. Diego [Rossi] came and contributed a lot too. Lucas’ departure meant a lot of players took a step forward, and I think we were able to overcome it.”

Stepping into the spotlight

Hernández’s scoring hasn’t stopped since. Eleven of his 16 goals in MLS play came after the Leagues Cup break and Zelarayán’s move to Saudi Arabia. As the striker rose up the Golden Boot presented by Audi ranks, the Crew climbed the table too. Now they head into Wednesday’s Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs opener against Atlanta United (7:30 pm | Apple TV – Free, FS1, FS2) as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and with the league’s best goal difference (+21).

Columbus needed Hernández to step up as a star in his own right. Zelarayán’s influence in helping him adapt to life in MLS after loan spells with clubs in Spain and a season with Watford was clear, as was how quickly the two bonded on and off the field.

“It’s a huge loss, honestly. It’s a really tough one for us personally, and on the field, because we really love Lucas, the city loves Lucas,” Hernández said after that América match. “He’s a club legend and, for me, the best player who has played at the club. So, clearly, we’re going to feel his absence, but that’s football. It changes, we come and go. I wish him the best. A great friend is leaving me, but I hope he enjoys it.”

Wilfried Nancy, Columbus’ coach, knew with Zelerayán making way, he’d need to get more from Hernández while also managing his star forward’s feelings about losing the daily support of a close friend on the team.

“As a person, for sure it was emotional, but as a player, he knew he had to step up. That’s what he did,” Nancy said. “He took more ownership and showed we can move forward. I wasn’t surprised because the Cucho I met at the beginning of the year and the Cucho in the middle of the year, I already saw a big step in terms of maturity.”

Evolving his game

The journey with Nancy and his staff has been a positive one for Hernández, who arrived in MLS last summer from Watford on a club-record fee. Caleb Porter was coaching Columbus then, and Hernández acclimated quickly, finishing with nine goals in 16 matches in 2022. When Nancy arrived, though, he wanted to make his new No. 9 a more complete player, someone who wasn’t just finishing off goals but also was helping to create scoring chances for others.

Nancy and his staff worked with Hernández to improve his play off the ball, teaching him when to drop back for a shorter pass or to make the killer run in behind.

“I have to say he’s been really, really good in terms of consistency. That’s why, for me, Cucho is the best modern forward in the league,” Nancy said. “He’s able to score goals, but also able to assist and also is able to help us defend.

“I like that, but at the same time, yeah, we have to challenge him because he wants to be good.”

Hernández does want to be good. He wants to be very good. Maybe too much.

“Cucho has a strong personality, but in a good way,” Nancy said. “In the beginning, it was not possible for him to fail. He does not like to fail. Step by step, he understood that you need to do certain things to get better and to be consistent.”

The consistency he’s finding this season has helped endear him to fans who he said have “showed me a really special love.” As the playoffs have drawn closer, he continues to celebrate with those fans, earning September’s MLS Player of the Month presented by CELSIUS award after becoming the first player since 2017 to score more than one hat trick in a single month of play. Hernández says it’s not simple, but he’s been making it look that way.

“It’s not easy, but of course, the style of play Wilfried put into place makes it so I have a lot of scoring chances. You’ve seen it all year,” he said. “The way we play means we generate spaces and opportunities to score. We’ve all known how to pull in the same direction toward that style, which helps me score and helps the team win.”

Colombia national team ambitions

Another goal for Hernández, and for many fans who leave comments on his social media pages, is for him to return to the Colombia national team. Despite Los Cafeteros looking for a goal-scoring nine, Hernández’s last minutes in a yellow shirt came in January’s friendly contest against the United States. He is yet to make an appearance for the senior team in a competitive match.

Colombia has since started World Cup qualification, scoring only three goals in their first four matches. While Hernández feels like he could bring plenty to the team and is hoping manager Nestor Lorenzo brings him in, he’s content, for now, to focus his efforts in Columbus.

“I don’t make the decisions there – or here! I just play football,” he said, grinning. “If the national team calls me, I’d be thrilled to go, but right now if I’m not there, I’m just going to keep working, trying to score goals, and keep doing good work to have a chance to go to the national team.

“The day a call-up comes, I’ll take advantage of it and enjoy it as much as possible. If it doesn’t, I’ll keep working. I’m here at the club where I train every day and where I have to achieve things.”

For Nancy, a manager gets what they expect from Hernández, something he knows firsthand after first watching the Colombian striker from afar while coaching CF Montréal. Though Hernández didn’t score in that meeting, Nancy knew of his abilities well.

“I scouted to prepare for the game and saw his quality,” Nancy said. “I saw the person I met in January. He has a lot of passion, a lot of desire to compete. The fact I was able to see exactly what I saw when I was [scouting] in Montréal, I was happy. The same energy he has off the pitch he brings on the pitch, so I was pleased.”

Hernández now has that energy turned toward achieving big things in the playoffs, striving to be the type of leader Zelarayán was three years ago when the fans in Columbus watched a player turn into a club legend before their eyes. The Crew faithful are hoping for that level of success too – and to applaud their new star for many seasons to come.

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