Cucho Hernandez returns but the Crew remains cautious with DP striker

When Cucho Hernandez began feeling pain in his knee prior to the game against the New York Red Bulls in mid-March, the results could have been much worse. While the Columbus Crew’s Designated Player missed six games, knee issues can often be more serious.

Fortunately for Hernandez, who scored nine goals in 16 games last year after being signed in the summer, the injury wasn’t overly damaging and didn’t require surgery. The forward was able to do physical therapy to rehab his knee and slowly work his way back into practice for the Crew.

On Wednesday, Hernandez made his return for the Black & Gold, playing 45 minutes in Columbus’ U.S. Open Cup 1-0 win against Indy Eleven.

“It was good to see him play and pull up after the game with absolutely no injuries or no problems,” center back Milos Degenek said of Hernandez this week, “which is a credit to the medical staff that worked really hard with him over the past few weeks. It’s a credit to the whole club for looking after him.”

Hernandez’s return wasn’t an explosive contest. The forward was active, moving around the front line and recording five shots but only putting two on target, including one acrobatic overhead attempt. Playing alongside Jacen Russell-Rowe, Hernandez spent more time out wide and as a facilitator than as a No. 9. 

But most importantly, he returned.

Following the win in the Open Cup, head coach Wilfried Nancy said the staff would see how Hernadez came through his first game in over a month after only limited training sessions. On Thursday, there wasn’t much of an update.

“It hasn’t changed,” Nancy said. “Because we still have two days to see how it’s going. So we’re happy that he’s back. He was happy to be on the pitch. So now we know that he can play. So we’ll see how he’s going to play and what we’re going to do with him. But it hasn’t changed for the moment because we’re training in one hour.”

On Friday evening, however, the Crew released the team’s availability report for Saturday’s game against Inter Miami and Hernandez’s name was not listed for the first time since the knee injury.

With that being said, the Black & Gold will be careful with their highest-paid player as they don’t want to lose him again for a longer period of time.

“Healthy first,” Nancy said when asked about the balance of wanting to get Hernandez back on the field to help win vs. being cautious due to the knee. “At the end of the day, if I want to be straightforward, the rest I don’t care. Because sometimes we want to rush things and we try to control what we can control. But again, everything can go so fast that one action or – so again, the idea is to all the time, all the players want to play. But my job is to be pragmatic sometimes and an important player or a young player is the same in terms of the way we want to approach. And after that, there is a decision in the moment. So we’ll see. So healthy first.”

While Hernandez is yet to score this year, he remains a difference-maker when on the field. While the Crew had an offensive explosion against a few struggling teams shortly after Hernandez was hurt, the scoring has cooled of late with just two goals in the last three games.

“Cucho is an unbelievable player,” midfielder Alexandru Matan said this week. “We’re glad that he’s back. It was a tough one. We’re happy that he didn’t need surgery for his knee and the staff handled this injury really, really good and we are happy for him to be back.”

There will be some adjustments with Hernandez regularly back for the Black & Gold. The forward, who was clearly rusty in the Open Cup game with some poor touches, will have to find his form but certainly brings a level of talent that Columbus does not have otherwise.

“He has special qualities,” Nancy said of Hernandez. “But in terms of the way we attack, it doesn’t change. Depending on the opposition, in terms of the game plan, it doesn’t change. After that, he has his own qualities. So what is good with all the players that we have, they’re able to express their qualities within what we want to do. So my job also with the staff is to put the player in the best position for them to do what they are good at.”

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