Rivalry Week

Cucho Hernández: Columbus Crew star strikes fear into the opponent


At a young age, it was ingrained in me that legends are made in a derby match.

You’re craving all three points, of course. But I always had the mindset of not letting the defender beat me in a header, a tackle, or a race to the ball. The other striker certainly couldn’t outscore me. Win all those little moments and the result follows, leaving your fans with bragging rights.

Heading into Saturday’s rivalry match, I can guarantee a striker as tenacious as Cucho Hernández has those same thoughts. It’s the year’s first Hell is Real derby and his Columbus Crew are the defending MLS Cup champions, hosting defending Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati (7:45 pm ET | Apple TV - Free; FS1, FOX Deportes).

The last time these teams met? It was the 2023 Eastern Conference Final and Cucho assisted Christian Ramirez’s extra-time winner, sealing the 3-2 win to turn Ohio Black & Gold. We all know what happened next, as Columbus raised MLS Cup at Lower.com Field and Cucho was named the game’s MVP.

This match comes at an interesting time – Columbus are three weeks out from playing Pachuca for the Concacaf Champions Cup title. Cucho needs to tune that out, though. Forget what’s coming down in Mexico, forget what’s coming even next week. Only this matters right now.

That approach won’t be a problem for Cucho, who has two goals and three assists in five matches against Cincy. He takes these games personally and will think that if he doesn't have a big moment, if he doesn't play well, Columbus will lose. Big players like him know they must turn up in derby games – they embrace that pressure and use it as fuel.

So, what makes Cucho so special?

His head coach, Wilfried Nancy, rightfully calls him the “best modern forward” in MLS. Sure, he wears the No. 9. But he’s so much more than that.

Nowadays, formations and tactics change often and are fluid. That means a modern-day striker should be comfortable with their back to goal and getting in the box. But they need to be comfortable coming into the pockets and playing in between lines, getting assists, being dynamic and driving past players.

Look at Cucho: He doesn't just rely on service to score. He’s got good feet, he's strong, he can use his head, he can find assists, he shoots with both feet. Everything the game needs in the final third to create advantages, he has it. He's so much more valuable than what the striker position can be.

Also, when you watch Cucho shoot, you rarely see him apologize for taking the chance. It’s more of a grimace, feeling like he was so close to scoring. He bets on himself and knows he has a good strike from distance. Some other strikers might play the ball out wide and get into the box, rinse and repeat. But someone like Cucho can get a world-class banger from 25 yards because he’s not shying away from a half-chance. That can get you five extra goals a season and strengthen your Golden Boot chances.

We’ve also seen that Cucho doesn’t back down. Earlier this season, he came off the field and seemed to be having a go at one of Columbus’ assistant coaches. If you take that fiery nature away from Cucho, you lose what makes the player special. I don't agree with what he did at that moment – you have to have respect for coaches. But Wilfred Nancy dealt with it and handed him a two-game suspension. That tells me Nancy is saying: “Yes, you're my top goal scorer. Yes, you're the best player on this team. But you have to sit, you're suspended.” The way Cucho's bounced back, there's been no pouting at Nancy. There’s respect. Now, he's back in the squad and playing at a really high level.

Will this all be enough for Cucho to make Colombia’s Copa América squad this summer? How I see it, Cucho can do no more. Let’s just hope their manager, Nestor Lorenzo, has his own mind. Use the eye test – you won’t find many strikers in Colombia’s player pool who are in better form. These things aren’t always that simple, but on football alone, it’s a no-brainer decision. At club level, he is one of Concacaf’s premier attackers. At international level, I know his profile would translate.

This all brings me to say that if I’m building an MLS team and must choose a striker, it's Cucho. I put Messi in an entirely different category – he’s the answer to every “best of” conversation.

But Cucho, man… he fills three positions in the final third. He works off the ball, he scores goals and he gets assists. He had 16 goals and 11 assists last year and has been the best player on the field in Columbus’ Champions Cup matches. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone: Cucho chose this project after time in the Premier League and LaLiga. He’s still just 25 years old, a true top talent.

I hope we see more players like Cucho come to MLS, especially this summer. They’re the players you pay to watch, that have a magic moment or two every game. Players like Cucho strike fear into the opponent.