CARSON, Calif. —There is an almost palpable air of excitement surrounding the LA Galaxy, which opened training camp this week at Dignity Health Sports Park.
The enthusiasm, however, didn’t have as much to do with starting preparations for the club’s regular-season opener on Feb. 29 in Houston as it did with the impending arrival of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer who signed a three-year contract earlier this week and will participate in his first training session with his new club on Thursday. An introductory press conference will follow at 1 p.m.
Hernandez, who will be 32 in June, is expected to help ease the departure of Swedish sensation Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who chose to continue his career with AC Milan. Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese was asked if the signing of Hernandez, which reportedly will guarantee him at least $6 million a year, was bigger than that of David Beckham, who joined the team in 2007.
“I couldn’t really tell you,” he said. “I was in the league (with Chivas USA) when David came in and it was amazing. I think he helped put MLS in a good place in the soccer world.
“I don’t have to tell you who Javier is and what he can bring, what he can do for the team because I think everybody knows. Now, how big his impact will be will also be defined by how good he can be on the field, and I think that is the main thing for us … to have a very, very good striker on the field and help push the team’s ambitions forward.
“With everything he brings off the field it’s something extra,” he went on. “On the other hand, scoring more than 50 goals in 100 plus games for the Mexican national team, with him being on (Real) Madrid, Manchester (United) … he’s been in and out of squads, on and off the bench.
“He’s a world-recognized player. If you want to play offensive football he is a dangerous guy.”
Galaxy president Chris Klein, who envisions Hernandez’s impact on Southern California’s Mexican American community to be “significant,” said it’s unfair for Hernandez to be expected to fill the shoes of the departed Ibrahimovic, who scored a stunning 52 goals in 56 games with the Galaxy.
“Just a very different person, a very different player,” Klein said. “On the field the production and what we’re going to need from him, there’s certainly big expectations there, but yeah, different players and different people, for sure.
“No one is Zlatan and at the same time Chicharito is his own man, too.”
Hernández has played in more than 400 matches across top-flight leagues in Mexico, England, Spain, and Germany in addition to appearing in more than 100 matches for Mexico’s national team. Galaxy teammate Jonathan dos Santos, who said he has known Hernandez for 10 years, can’t wait for him to don a Galaxy jersey. Hernandez will don the No. 14 kit; Joe Corona wore it last season but will switch to No. 15 in 2020.
If you’re looking for someone to score goals, dos Santos said, Hernandez is the man to do it. And he does it with a certain panache.
“He’s a killer,” he said. “One of the smartest players I know. I know he’s going to score a lot of goals with us. We’re going to help him score, too.”
Dos Santos said he’s already reached out to his good friend and told him what to expect in Major League Soccer.
“He knows MLS is not easy to play in,” he said. “He knows he has to work hard to be one of the best, but I know that is what he will do. I’m not worried about him.
“It’s always nice to have another compadre,” dos Santos went on with a smile. “I’m very happy for him.”
HOME, SWEET HOME
Sacha Kljestan turns 34 in June and admittedly is in the latter stages of a professional soccer career that began with the Orange County Blues in 2005 and included MLS stops with Chivas USA, New York Red Bulls and Orlando City.
But coming to the Galaxy is particularly special for the Huntington Beach native who was a fan of the club while growing up in Orange County.
“It’s really meaningful for me,” said Kljestan, who signed with the Galaxy in mid-December, “but I also think for my wife and kids, too, and the rest of my local family that’s from here.
“The first five years at Chivas was awesome because every other weekend the whole family got together and they would have dinner down here in Carson, then they would all come to the game and sit together. It became a family tradition. I’ve been gone for 10 years, and now to be back to do that for the family … now I’m married with two kids … just for them to get together is really nice.
“And to play for the team I grew up supporting is a pretty awesome way to get this at the ending part of my career to play here. I’m really excited.”
Kljestan said he feels his primary role on the Galaxy will be to provide leadership. He certainly has plenty of that with 264 appearances, 38 goals and 93 assists in Major League Soccer and 51 caps with the U.S. national team to his credit.
“I think I’m going to be someone the young guys will look up to and understand what it means to be a professional and what it means to take yourself to the next level every day in training,” he said. “I’m 34, but I still feel like I can get better every day in training. That’s something I’ve never given up on.
“How I fit into the midfield will be determined. It will be interesting to see, but I think I’ll be doing a lot of work on the training pitch to help these guys.”
BEWARE THE BUTCHER
Galaxy assistant coach and athletic trainer Javier Valdecantos arrived on the scene a year ago with the reputation of conducting brutal workouts. Hence the well-deserved nicknames of “butcher” and “assassin.”
Suffice it to say Galaxy veterans arrived at training camp this week knowing what to expect from the Argentinian. They’ve also warned newcomers that two-a-day sessions which began Tuesday will mark the utmost tests of their overall fitness.
“We have more knowledge of what to expect, which is good,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said with a grin. “But that doesn’t make it any easier.
“You still have to put in the work, right?”
Central defender Dan Steres pointed out it’s more of a mental preparation dealing with Valdecantos, “but you can only prepare so much. Your body is going to get broken down. That’s all part of it.”
He said this year’s newcomers already have been surprised by what is in store as far as conditioning. And camp is only a couple of days old.
“We’ve told the new guys about it,’ Steres said, “but we’re already getting some looks like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here? Is it going to be like this all year?’ Everyone’s getting into it.”