When Juan “Cucho” Hernández scored the game-winning goal in his MLS debut by lifting the ball over the goalkeeper, it felt like a piece of remarkable quality and skill. That it capped a thrilling second-half comeback against rivals Chicago Fire FC, made it a storybook start.
But then came his second game a few days later, when Hernández followed up his debut by producing two more world-class goals. One was a curling shot that dipped toward the back post; the other was a diving header that, at the time, was the go-ahead goal against D.C. United.
So, by the time Sunday rolled around and the Colombian forward walked onto the Lower.com Field grass for his home debut, the question wasn’t if his streak would continue, but how?
Sixteen minutes into the match, we got our answer.
As Lucas Zelarayán played a free kick into the box, Cucho charged toward the ball, then flicked it with his head toward the back post – almost effortlessly, it seemed. And just like that, he had his fourth goal in three games and the game winner in Sunday’s 2-0 Hell is Real Derby win over FC Cincinnati.
Cuchomania is here and it feels deserved.
The 23-year-old forward didn’t arrive in the Ohio capital as a goal-scoring savior, but instead the missing piece that has the Crew playing like its vintage self.
Following the match, head coach Caleb Porter said this squad reminds him of the group that won the 2020 MLS Cup. The question wasn’t if the Crew can make the playoffs, but how many home games can they host in the postseason. (Before Sunday, the Crew hadn’t been in a playoff spot for weeks.)
The Black & Gold are unbeaten in their last eight games, but it’s the last three that have felt so inspiring. Some of that is Cucho, of course. But it’s also the reemergence of Zelarayán.
“He’s coming to life,” Porter said of Zelarayán following the Chicago win, when the Argentine had two assists in a match for the first time since last October.
Against FC Cincinnati, the playmaker provided the assist to Cucho and put the game to bed when he converted a second half penalty kick to make it 2-0.
“Lucas is playing as well as I've seen him play,” Porter said. “I thought was one of his best games in the year.”
With the introduction of Cucho, Zelarayán and the Colombian have ushered in a new offensive energy — and that’s a beautiful thing for Black & Gold supporters and a nightmare for the opposition.
In 2022, Zelarayán has five goals and nine assists. Five of those assists have come in the last three games. To say the duo’s partnership has been a success would be a massive understatement.
“We are all very happy that Cucho’s here and the way that he’s improved the team,” Zelarayán said. “We're excited that he has helped us re-encounter with goals and scoring goals and just overall he is a great addition to the squad.”
But the feeling goes both ways. Cucho is equally happy to play with Zelarayán, who he says has been helpful as the forward settles into Columbus.
“We’ve struck up a great relationship off the field,” Cucho said. “He’s been very useful, so we can understand each other these first few games. He’s a very high-quality player and we’re all happy to have him as well.
“He’s made me feel like just one more player on the team. He has made me feel as though I’m appreciated and it has been great for my confidence.”
The goal now is sustaining this success throughout the next 14 regular season games and, hopefully, into the postseason. The Crew is sixth in the Eastern Conference standings and will play six of its next nine at Lower.com Field.
Next up is the Crew's Alumni Night celebration on Saturday, when the Black & Gold host the New England Revolution. It’ll be a chance to see if Cucho can extend his current streak and if Zelarayán can continue being an excellent distributor.
It’s a beautiful sight to see the introduction of Cucho. It’s even better to see the revival of Lucas. Together, maybe it’s not too soon to start dreaming of what awaits in a few months.
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