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Hernandez Bursts on Scene

Celebrity: Newest star in L.A. could do for soccer in U.S. what Gretzky did for hockey.

May 21, 2000|PAUL GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The story goes something like this: A long-haired blond athlete in the prime of his career crosses the border and comes to town to elevate his sport in the hearts and minds of Americans while striking up a kinship with the city's reigning basketball star.

It's a familiar tale.

Luis Hernandez, meet Wayne Gretzky.

While Hernandez's signing with Major League Soccer out of Mexico to play for the Galaxy is seen as a prime way to elevate soccer in this country's sporting psyche, it mirrors the excitement and expectations Gretzky brought with him from Canada when he was welcomed to the Southland by Magic Johnson in the summer of 1988.

Pressure?

Hernandez, the biggest star in Mexican futbol, hopes to take soccer mainstream here in the same manner Gretzky made the Kings fashionable in Hollywood.

"I'm always ready for that challenge," Hernandez said in Spanish at Friday night's Staples Center news conference trumpeting his arrival. "I think I've accomplished everything I could in Mexico. As a man, I'm looking for a new challenge. To be able to transfer to the U.S. and face a new challenge made my decision easy.

"But more than anything, it's [good] to be able to learn a new style of play and to get the Latino fans more excited about the game of soccer."

Plus, Hernandez will finally get to meet his sports hero--Laker center Shaquille O'Neal.

A skull session featuring "El Matador" and "The Big Aristotle" would rival anything "The Great One" and "The Magic Man" had. Besides, Hernandez and O'Neal share an affinity for things from the planet Krypton--O'Neal's tattoo of the Superman symbol is readily identifiable and Hernandez sports a pinky ring on his left hand with the same 'S.'

On his arrival Friday, Hernandez was given a tour of Staples Center and was shown the Laker locker room, where he spied O'Neal's size-22 shoes.

"I thought they were tennis rackets," Hernandez said.

The price the Galaxy paid to get Hernandez was just as mammoth.

The Galaxy was forced to give up forward Clint Mathis and defender Joe Franchino and, due to resultant salary cap restraints, parted with midfielder Roy Myers.

"Whenever you have the opportunity to add a world-class forward, the answer is yes. You never say no, you always say yes, and you bring that type of player in," Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. "I think he's just going to add more things to our attack. It's going to be very difficult for the opponents now to deal with Luis' speed and with the speed of [forward] Cobi Jones."

Galaxy captain Robin Fraser said players were looking forward to Hernandez joining the team after weeks of rumors.

"He's going to adapt to our team right away and he's going to fit right in to our style of play," Fraser said. "I feel like of all the Mexican players we could have gotten, he is by far the best, and the best fit for our team."

Hernandez agreed, saying the transition period would be minimal.

"There are a lot of Latinos here who know me, who know my style of play," he said. "So it won't be like totally starting over."

In his MLS debut Saturday, in front of a season-high 40,303, Hernandez was named player of the game with two scoring chances in the Galaxy's 2-1 victory over defending league champion Washington D.C. United.

But he came out at the 72nd minute because of a sprained left shoulder after hitting the Rose Bowl turf awkwardly following a collision with United defender Carlos Llamosa. Hernandez was taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Pasadena for an MRI exam.

He was scheduled to return to Mexico, where he's been caught in a hail of bad publicity, to gather more personal belongings, and will miss Wednesday's game at New England.

Mexican media have been taking shots at Hernandez, who was born in the Veracruz oil town of Poza Rica, since he signed with MLS Tuesday, saying he left his homeland for a lower level of play.

"I don't think so," said Hernandez, whose seven-months pregnant wife and two children will stay in Mexico until the third child is born. "It's a good level of play that is improving. The proof is in the [American] national team, which has given us tough games. The level [in MLS] is increasing and I just see it as a challenge to play here. As a soccer player, it's always a good experience to face different and new challenges and opportunities."

The Galaxy faces just as many, having lost so many key players and with Hernandez hobbled by injury.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber acknowledged the hit the Galaxy took in acquiring Hernandez.

"While it is a steep price, it's a price that's going to pay off big time," Garber said. "It's huge. It's the kind of signing our [MLS] fans have been screaming for. He's one of the premier strikers in North America. Plus, he's a very marketable player who's going to be playing in a premier market.

"He's a great player but because he's also a cool guy, that makes a great thing better."

Sergio del Prado, the Galaxy vice president of business operations, agreed.

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