When Mexican superstar Luis (El Matador) Hernandez joined the
Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday, the most remarkable thing
wasn't the buzz he created or the nearly $5 million transfer fee
he commanded or the myriad ways in which he might improve the
fortunes of MLS. No, the most remarkable thing was what he
didn't bring with him: his soccer shoes. As a result, the Galaxy
had to dispatch its equipment manager to a Pasadena sporting
goods store in search of a pair of size-8 Nike Tiempos, and 90
minutes later, playing in shoes he'd never worn, with teammates
he'd just met, Hernandez merely created both Los Angeles goals
in a 2-1 win over D.C. United. "They must have some good people
working for the Galaxy," he said, "because they got me some nice
Hernandez's acquisition is a huge step forward for MLS, which
views him as a way to draw a giant Hispanic fan base that remains
largely untapped. (Through Sunday, MLS's average attendance had
dropped from 17,406 in 1996, its inaugural season, to 13,424.)
Sure enough, the Galaxy, which entered the game with a
league-leading average of 18,987 fans, drew 40,303 to the Rose
Bowl for Hernandez's debut, even though the match was being
televised locally. In one swoop El Matador joined Shaquille
O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as one of the biggest sports draws in L.A.
"Luis is the most important player we could sign in the world,"
says MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis, who negotiated
the deal, which more than doubled the previous record transfer
fee the league paid for Ariel Graziani in 1999. "He's an
international star in the prime of his career. He's Mexican, and
Mexican-Americans are our largest ethnic audience. And he's a
goal scorer, which is one reason why he's so popular. There are
important Hispanic markets in Chicago, Dallas and New York, and
this could be the model for other moves we make."
It's no coincidence that, within the next two weeks, MLS is
likely to announce a deal to bring highly regarded Mexican
forward Jose Manuel Abundis to the San Jose Earthquakes. Says
league commissioner Don Garber, "This is the beginning of showing
everyone in the soccer business that we're serious about doing
all we can to bring the best possible players into the league."
No Mexican player is more exciting than Hernandez, 31, his
country's coleader in international scoring, with 35 goals. At
the 1998 World Cup in France he had four goals (matching
Ronaldo) in four games and was L'Equipe's highest-rated forward
in the first round of the tournament. As his arrival in Los
Angeles became imminent, the buzz among the area's 4 million
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans reached fever pitch. On KTNQ,
talk-show host Raul Vale made joke after joke about the Ferrari
Testarossa Hernandez wants to lease in L.A., and the show
Hablando de Deportes (Speaking of Sports) went all-Hernandez
all-the-time. "Luis is a hero for Mexicans after the World Cup,"
says Rigoberto Cervantez, a sportswriter for La Opinion, L.A.'s
Spanish-language daily. "He's the only Mexican player that
Brazilians recognize by name."
Against United, Hernandez put his indelible stamp on the game
even though he hadn't trained for a week. On the Galaxy's first
goal he made such a menacing run toward a high, long pass that
United's flustered Carey Talley headed the ball into his own net.
Arms extended like an airplane, Hernandez may have performed the
most exuberant celebration ever for an own-goal. "That's the type
of score I expect Luis to create," said L.A. center back Robin
Fraser. "He's always chasing defenders down, and as a defender
you never feel like you have any time. If it wasn't for that
pressure, Talley might not have made that decision."
L.A. went up 2-0 when Hernandez touched an exquisite lead pass to
Cobi Jones, who was taken down in the penalty box; defender Greg
Vanney converted the ensuing penalty kick. Still, Hernandez's
flashy arrival comes with a few caveats. For starters, MLS rules,
which often appear to be made on the fly, allowed the New
York/New Jersey MetroStars to take two Galaxy starters as a
result of the deal, further angering teams that believe the
league favors the bumbling New York/New Jersey franchise, which
was originally intended to be the MLS flagship. What's more, the
league is counting on Hernandez to sign with a European club
(probably in France or Spain), which would help offset his
transfer fee but could cause him to miss the first 10 games of
MLS's 32-game season during the next two years of his contract.
That said, it's impossible for American soccer fans not to be
heartened by Hernandez's addition to MLS. Late last Saturday
night he offered a thin smile as he left Pasadena's St. Luke
Medical Center, X-rays having determined that his left shoulder,
feared sprained in the match, was merely bruised. "The play here
is very strong and fast, and I need to get used to it," Hernandez
said. "But I had the support of everyone in the stands, and my
And this week he'll even have the support of broken-in shoes.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER "Luis (in green) is the most important player we could sign in the world," says an MLS executive.