A Big Thing: Cucho Debuts in Historic Crew Comeback

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned more than three square miles of the city. The not-so-great Chicago Fire of 2022 burned a two-goal lead at home to the Columbus Crew, making for a historically memorable Black & Gold (er, Gray & White) debut for $10.5 million signing Cucho Hernandez.

The Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow of this weekend’s Windy City immolation was not Cucho, but rather Derrick Etienne Jr, who entered the match after halftime with the Crew seemingly on their way to a desultory drubbing by a last-place rival. Etienne’s bovine similarities end with metaphor. The brash, speedy winger sparked the comeback in the 65th minute when he zipped behind the Chicago defense on the left side and ran onto a surgically incisive pass from Lucas Zelarayan, then curled a high shot inside the far post. In both the pass and the finish, it was the type of expertly executed goal that inspires hope and instills confidence. Ask the 2020 Seattle Sounders what a clinical goal like that can do for the Columbus Crew. Sometimes, it seems this team has nothing. But on the nights it finds something, it has something.

On Saturday, the Crew had nothing until they found the kind of something that was something. Then they soon had everything.

In the 75th minute, the Crew leveled the game on a sequence that started with an innocuous throw-in at the midfield stripe. Etienne received the throw on the left sideline, then dribbled forward through and among a battalion of five (five!) Chicago defenders, before splitting them with a pass to find Zelarayan at the top of the box. That’s Zelarayan’s nitro zone, but instead of teeing up a shot, he recognized a wide-open Luis Diaz streaming up the right side and dished a diagonal forward pass into Diaz’s path. Diaz also demurred on a shot, instead cutting the ball back with a shin-high pass toward the far post. Etienne had continued his run from the left flank and easily knocked the ball into the gaping net with his instep. It was a simple finish that was only possible because Etienne did the hard part ten second earlier.

Derrick Etienne (of course with the help of Zelarayan and Diaz) turned the game on its head and very well could be the MLS Player of the Week, and deservedly so. Yet nobody is going to remember because of what came next.

Heading into the match, all eyes were on Juan Camilo “Cucho” Hernandez, the Colombian forward the Crew purchased from Watford following their relegation from the English Premier League. Doling out the largest transfer fee in club history, the Crew brought Cucho to Columbus to be a star. Not so coincidentally, Cucho came to Columbus intent to be a star. In the week leading up to his debut, he has looked and talked the part of a soccer star—handsome, friendly, funny, and talented, with a highlight reel and resume that portend greatness in Black & Gold. Just 23 years old, he’s already played in La Liga and the EPL. He’s scored against Barcelona at Camp Nou and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu…in the same season, at 19 years old. He’s also scored against EPL champion Manchester City and scored Watford’s goal of the year with a bicycle kick against Arsenal, all while playing for an overmatched team that rarely had the ball.

What, pray tell, could he do against the last-place Chicago Fire at Soldier Field?

Cucho poses with Crew GM Tim Bezbatchenko. (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Crew)

As he had barely trained and was coming into the squad during what would be his European off-season, Cucho was going to be limited to 30 minutes as a substitute. Crew fans envisioned Cucho coming off the bench and putting the game away. Instead, he entered in the 62nd minute with the Crew down two goals. An expensive drink of water for ten drowning men.

But then everything changed. Derrick and the domino-effect set the comeback in motion just three minutes after Cucho stepped foot on the field for the first time.

“When you have a top striker, it gives your team confidence,” said Crew coach Caleb Porter after the match. “And I think you saw immediately that when he went in the game, the confidence grew. Players come to life when they are around other very good players.”

Eight minutes after Etienne tied the game, the stage was set for the Crew’s new star to step into the spotlight. In the 83rd minute, Diaz pounced on a lousy, aimless Chicago backpass in the Crew’s defensive third of the field. With his first touch, Diaz sent a forward pass up the right-center of the field, well into the Chicago half. Cucho blazed after Diaz’s delivery and no Fire defender even came close to catching him. His first touch forward appeared to be heavy and to our Cucho-inexperienced eyes, it seemed that Fire goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina would be able to smother the ball before Cucho could get to it again. Then Cucho found another gear. Rather than a heavy touch, it was a perfectly placed touch that would draw Slonina out of the net and enable Cucho to get to the ball a split second before it could be smothered. He then deftly dinked the ball over a sliding Slonina while trailing defenders fruitlessly huffed and puffed in pursuit of the ball, tantalized by visions of a goal line clearance that Cucho’s teasing finish did not make possible. The ball bounced into the side netting and a Crew legend was born.

Cucho Hernandez became the 17th Crew player to score in his competitive debut for the club in all competitions. He became the 7th to score the game-winning goal in his club debut, and the fifth to do so in a league match. He joins only Niko Hansen and the already legendary Zelarayan in scoring the game-winning goal in a match that was simultaneously his Crew debut and his MLS debut.

He accomplished this feat in a match that was only the second time the Crew have ever rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win a road game. Columbus is now 2-88-6 all-time when falling behind 2-0 away from home. The only other win under such circumstances was on October 11, 2014, at Phildelphia, when the Crew scored in the 78th, 79th, and 82nd minutes to stun the Union, 3-2.

Cucho’s goal capped a night that was a rare and historic achievement for both the club and its new star player. And it’s only the start.

“Of course it was a dream start because we won,” Cucho said. “It was incredible, the team’s strength to be able to come back to win the game. I’m proud to be a member of this team and we have more games to win.”

Based on Cucho’s electrifying debut, more wins are certainly expected as he sparks and integrates into a team that still contains the pedigree of 11 Massive Champions.

“I think what you saw in the 30-minute snapshot is what you’re going to get,” Porter said.  “He’s a dynamic player, the way he gobbled up ground, his explosiveness on the ball, and you saw he’s probably quicker than you guys thought. We saw that on film. And his quality at the end, his final prep touch to then just basically dink it over the keeper, that’s what the type of player he is can do. The other thing is the energy. The positivity. The smile. The way he interacts with his teammates. It’s a big thing.”

Cucho’s signing was trumpeted as a seismic landmark in Black & Gold history. When it came time to test the veracity of the marketing pitch on the actual pitch, Saturday night revealed that in multiple historic ways, Cucho’s first match with the Columbus Crew was indeed A Big Thing.

*******

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