Exit the Zlatan. Enter the Chicharito.
Looking to replace their primary source of offense, the Los Angeles Galaxy hope the star-driven method continues to pay dividends with Javier Hernandez the focal point heading into their season opener versus the Houston Dynamo.
There was no denying Zlatan Ibrahimovic left a lasting imprint in his two seasons with the Galaxy (16-15-3), totaling 53 goals in just 58 matches in all competitions and finishing second in the MLS with 30 goals in 2019. But the towering Swede has moved on to AC Milan, leaving a gaping void at center-forward.
In steps the 31-year-old Hernandez, a different type of striker in both size and style. At 5-foot-9 and 157 pounds, Chicharito is equal parts goal-poacher and stealthy, able to ghost into the penalty area and finish. He is also Mexico's all-time leading scorer with 52 goals in 109 international appearances, and the expected full-time minutes he will get with the Galaxy will help his bid to make a fourth World Cup appearance with "El Tri" as qualifying begins this summer.
"I feel pretty good, pretty well, there's still a lot of improvement to get ready and get in a better shape," Hernandez said. "I think this team is capable to go the highest we can imagine, I think we can get to the championship. We need to believe in ourselves first, work about it and then give everything we got to get there."
Chicharito is one of two new pieces in attack along with winger Aleksandar Katai, who had 18 goals and 12 assists the last two seasons with the Chicago Fire. On the other flank is Cristian Pavon, who is playing his first full season with the Galaxy after arriving on loan from Argentine side Boca Juniors in January and totaling four goals and eight assists in 13 matches.
Chicharito will have one familiar face on the field with him in midfielder and compatriot Jonathan Dos Santos. Dos Santos is part of a stacked midfield with current U.S. international Sebastian Lletget and one-time USMNT vet Sacha Kljestan also pulling strings in attack.
For all the potential in attack, Los Angeles' defense continues to be a work in progress. The Galaxy conceded 59 goals last season and potential starter Danilo Acosta was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in a preseason match versus Toronto FC last week.
While the Galaxy have the potential to be among the Western Conference's best, the Dynamo (12-18-4) are in the first stages of a rebuild that beings with new coach Tab Ramos. The move appears to be a coup for Houston, with Ramos guiding the U.S. Under-20 team to three consecutive World Cup quarterfinal appearances in that age group.
The challenge is now building a Dynamo squad that has missed the playoffs five of the last six years after finishing 10th in the West last season and eight points out of the final postseason spot.
"Well for us, we have outlined very clear objectives," Dynamo general manager Matt Jordan told ProSoccer USA. "We want to qualify for the playoff and compete to win the championship. That's what gets us out of bed every morning and that's what motivates us. We feel we have a team and a roster that could compete with anyone in Major League Soccer. A big offseason objective of ours was to get younger. And we feel we accomplished that, getting younger in each of our lines throughout the team."
Ramos does have some talent to work with in attack as both Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas returned to the fold. Elis paced Houston with 10 assists while Manotas bagged a team-best 13 goals. With Ramos expected to use a 4-3-3 formation, the duo and newcomer Darwin Quintero - who had 16 goals in all competitions for Minnesota United in 2019 - could give opposing backlines trouble if they gel quickly.
The home team won both matches last season, with the Dynamo recording a 4-2 victory in the corresponding fixture that was also the most recent meeting. Elis scored goals in both contests and set up Christian Ramirez's go-ahead goal in the 83rd minute of the win in October.