When Mexican superstar Luis (El Matador) Hern�ndez joined the Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday, the most remarkable thing wasn't the buzz he created or the nearly $5 million transfer fee he commanded or the myriad ways in which he might improve the fortunes of MLS. No, the most remarkable thing was what he didn't bring with him: his soccer shoes. As a result, the Galaxy had to dispatch its equipment manager to a Pasadena sporting goods store in search of a pair of size-8 Nike Tiempos, and 90 minutes later, playing in shoes he'd never worn, with teammates he'd just met, Hern�ndez merely created both Los Angeles goals in a 2-1 win over D.C. United. "They must have some good people working for the Galaxy," he said, "because they got me some nice shoes."
Hern�ndez's acquisition is a huge step forward for MLS, which views him as a way to draw a giant Hispanic fan base that remains largely untapped. (Through Sunday, MLS's average attendance had dropped from 17,406 in 1996, its inaugural season, to 13,424.) Sure enough, the Galaxy, which entered the game with a league-leading average of 18,987 fans, drew 40,303 to the Rose Bowl for Hern�ndez's debut, even though the match was being televised locally. In one swoop El Matador joined Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as one of the biggest sports draws in L.A. "Luis is the most important player we could sign in the world," says MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis, who negotiated the deal, which more than doubled the previous record transfer fee the league paid for Ariel Graziani in 1999. "He's an international star in the prime of his career. He's Mexican, and Mexican-Americans are our largest ethnic audience. And he's a goal scorer, which is one reason why he's so popular. There are important Hispanic markets in Chicago, Dallas and New York, and this could be the model for other moves we make."
It's no coincidence that, within the next two weeks, MLS is likely to announce a deal to bring highly regarded Mexican forward Jos� Manuel Abundis to the San Jose Earthquakes. Says league commissioner Don Garber, "This is the beginning of showing everyone in the soccer business that we're serious about doing all we can to bring the best possible players into the league."
No Mexican player is more exciting than Hern�ndez, 31, his country's coleader in international scoring, with 35 goals. At the 1998 World Cup in France he had four goals (matching Ronaldo) in four games and was L'Equipe's highest-rated forward in the first round of the tournament. As his arrival in Los Angeles became imminent, the buzz among the area's 4 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans reached fever pitch. On KTNQ, talk-show host Ra�l Vale made joke after joke about the Ferrari Testarossa Hern�ndez wants to lease in L.A., and the show Hablando de Deportes (Speaking of Sports) went all-Hern�ndez all-the-time. "Luis is a hero for Mexicans after the World Cup," says Rigoberto Cervantez, a sports-writer for La Opini�n, L.A.'s Spanish-language daily. "He's the only Mexican player that Brazilians recognize by name."
Against United, Hern�ndez put his indelible stamp on the game even though he hadn't trained for a week. On the Galaxy's first goal he made such a menacing run toward a high, long pass that United's flustered Carey Talley headed the ball into his own net. Arms extended like an airplane, Hern�ndez may have performed the most exuberant celebration ever for an own-goal. "That's the type of score I expect Luis to create," said L.A. center back Robin Fraser. "He's always chasing defenders down, and as a defender you never feel like you have any time. If it wasn't for that pressure, Talley might not have made that decision."
L.A. went up 2-0 when Hern�ndez touched an exquisite lead pass to Cobi Jones, who was taken down in the penalty box; defender Greg Vanney converted the ensuing penalty kick. Still, Hern�ndez's flashy arrival comes with a few caveats. For starters, MLS rules, which often appear to be made on the fly, allowed the New York/New Jersey MetroStars to take two Galaxy starters as a result of the deal, further angering teams that believe the league favors the bumbling New York/New Jersey franchise, which was originally intended to be the MLS flagship. What's more, the league is counting on Hern�ndez to sign with a European club (probably in France or Spain), which would help offset his transfer fee but could cause him to miss the first 10 games of MLS's 32-game season during the next two years of his contract.
That said, it's impossible for American soccer fans not to be heartened by Hern�ndez's addition to MLS. Late last Saturday night he offered a thin smile as he left Pasadena's St. Luke Medical Center, X-rays having determined that his left shoulder, feared sprained in the match, was merely bruised. "The play here is very strong and fast, and I need to get used to it," Hern�ndez said. "But I had the support of everyone in the stands, and my teammates."
And this week he'll even have the support of broken-in shoes.