The Galaxy didn’t win either time.
“It was a rough start,” Hernández, better known as Chicharito, confessed over the weekend.
But when the team returns to the field Monday after a four-month pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernández’s poor performances will be a distant memory.
“It’s almost like starting from scratch at this point,” teammate Sebastian Lletget said. “It’s really hard for any team to carry on from where they were, even if you won those two first games. So yeah, it’s kind of a fresh start.”
The Galaxy will face the Portland Timbers in their first game in the MLS Is Back tournament. In the opener of Monday’s doubleheader, rival LAFC will play the Houston Dynamo.
That’s if the games are played. When MLS postponed Sunday morning’s D.C. United-Toronto FC game, it marked the third time in five days a match had been canceled or postponed because of positive COVID-19 tests. At least 22 players from four teams have tested positive since entering the MLS quarantine June 27, and two teams already have been withdrawn. And this is happening as Florida on Sunday reported a one-day record of 15,299 COVID-19 infections and a record 514 coronavirus deaths for the last week.
Yet MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott insisted the games would go on.
“We believe the tournament can be carried out safely,” he said. “In case it isn’t, we’d make a decision.”
There had been some doubt that Hernández, the Mexican national team’s all-time leading goal scorer, would be in Orlando this week. His wife, Sarah, is seven months pregnant. To play in the tournament, Hernández had to leave her and the couple’s year-old son, Noah, in Southern California to be isolated for weeks in Florida.
“It was tough,” he said of the decision. “Not only for myself, for all the players. Even the single players. People can think, ‘Oh, we make good salaries, we are athletes.’ But being [gone] five weeks, it’s tough being away from family.”
The Galaxy made the decision easier by helping Hernández bring his brother-in-law, David Kohan, from New York to Los Angeles to keep his family company. As for entering MLS’ now-punctured protective bubble, Hernández said he had no second thoughts.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel safe,” he said.
The reward, Lletget said, is that Hernández will get a second chance at a first impression. The Galaxy hasn’t played since March 7 — so long that Hernández returns a year older, at 32 — and the long break gave the team time to ponder its poor start.
“There are a lot of positives we’ve been working on,” Lletget said. “We’ve taken what we’ve done wrong and tried to improve that. There’s a good opportunity on Monday, but again we haven’t even had a chance to play any rival teams in months. This will be our first opportunity to do that.”
But they’ll be doing it without their captain, midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, arguably the team’s best player. Dos Santos recently underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia.
LAFC will also be without its captain and best player, forward Carlos Vela. He chose to stay home with his wife, Saioa, who is due to give birth to the couple’s second child this summer.
Hernández strongly pushed back against any attempt to compare his situation with that of Vela, his World Cup teammate, whose wife is having a difficult pregnancy.
“He took a very wise decision for him and his family,” Hernández said. “And I did the same.”
Vela’s absence will be felt, though. Although LAFC has the best record in MLS over the last two-plus seasons, it has won just four of the nine games it has played without its captain, the reigning MVP and the league’s single-season scoring leader. And in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Vela has scored or assisted on nearly 60% of LAFC’s league-leading 89 goals.
The venue could also be a problem. The MLS Is Back tournament is being played on a neutral field without fans — or atmosphere — at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. LAFC typically doesn’t do well away from its passionate fan base at Banc of California Stadium.
“The responsibility is on every player to motivate each other,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who has never played before anything other than a sellout crowd at the Banc. “Obviously, we’re used to feeding off our fans and the support we get. But we know what it takes to play good football. It’s going to require the players to push each other even more.”
Two of the league’s 26 teams were dismissed from the tournament last week after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19, leaving 24 teams to be divided into four-team groups. Each team will play three games in the first round, with the top two teams in each group, plus the four best third-place teams, moving on to the knockout stage.
The first-round games might determine more than just who advances in the tournament. They might also determine who advances to the playoffs because the results will count in the standings if MLS is able to resume its regular season later this summer.
When MLS paused it season after two weeks, LAFC (1-0-1) was unbeaten while the Galaxy (0-1-1) were winless. Both teams are playing in the same group in Orlando, meaning they could return to Southern California next month tied in the table.
“We are looking for ways to get out of the group, move on in the tournament,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “But we are also looking at each of those group matches as three league points. And we are trying to fight for league points just like we would during any other regular season.”