As Major League Soccer continues to progress into its second decade of existence, so too have its players, blossoming from starry-eyed rookies to grizzled veterans. As an MLS lifer now in his 13th season in the league, Jason Hernandez embodies that development path,
A career in soccer didn’t seem to be in the cards for a young kid in New York City. Now, at 35, Hernandez has proved to be a role model and exemplary professional.
“The only reason I began playing soccer was because I changed schools in sixth grade and a bunch of kids in my class were Colombian,” Hernandez says. “So to try to make friends, I just started playing. I grew up playing baseball—it’s in my blood as a Puerto Rican—but once I started playing soccer, I just fell in love. I got a bit of a late start, but it took me over.”
Hernandez stayed local for his college ball, enjoying a successful career at Seton Hall University. And he didn’t have to move far after making the leap to professional soccer, signing with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 2005.
His stay with the MetroStars didn’t last long however, as Hernandez followed coach Bob Bradley to Los Angeles to embark on a new project with second-year club Chivas USA in 2006. The move proved to be quite the challenge for the defender on both a professional and personal level.
“I knew I had a coach who believed in me and wanted me there,” he says. “But personally, it was one of the more difficult experiences I’ve had as a pro. If you’re from the New York/New Jersey area, a lot of people will tell you that they don’t feel the need to go anywhere else; it feels like you’ve got it all. Being on the west coast, I was very homesick. It was definitely tough, but it helped me to progress as a man on and off the field.”
The only thing I can control is how hard I work, so no one’s going to outwork me. I’ll never step on the field with a bad attitude and put myself behind the 8-ball.
His experiences served him well as he moved on to the San Jose Earthquakes. It was there that he became a true staple in the league and one of the best pure defenders in MLS. But that rise to prominence was cast into doubt as a slew of injuries slowed his progress.
“I injured my calf with the U.S. national team, and that really through off my whole season back in San Jose,” he says. “I re-injured that calf twice, then did my hamstring. And just at the end of the season, I broke my ankle here at BMO Field on the turf. I’ll never forget that day in 2009, it completely changed my career.”
Just as the aging scrambling quarterback evolves to become a pocket passer, or a former flamethrower must learn to paint the black of the plate, so too did Hernandez seek to retool his game; adapt and survive, so it goes.
“From 2005 to 2009, my main attribute was my athleticism. But after I did my ankle, I knew I’d never have that extra gear like I used to; that forced me to change my game. I had to read the game better, anticipate things better.”
“All players get to that point as they get older, and a lot of them fall out because they only know how to play the game one way. But at 26, I had to learn how to play the game in a whole different way. In a lot of ways, I feel like it extended my career.”
That change helped him to what he refers to as some of his best seasons, joining yet another new project with expansion side New York City FC.
“For me, it was a dream come true,” he admits. “I had always pictured playing in the Bronx under the lights, but always as a baseball player. To go there to play soccer was something I would have never imagined or thought possible. It was amazing to play in front of my family and friends and live in city I was born.”
Despite his success, Hernandez found himself without a team come the 2017 season. With options to choose from, his next stop needed to be a place he could fit in and contribute right away; Toronto checked all the boxes. But joining a top club meant that Hernandez would be playing an unfamiliar role off the bench. It suited him just fine.
“I’m here for whatever the team needs. I think I’ve demonstrated that to the team, and they know that I’m ready whenever they need me,” he explains. “Understanding that I’m not ‘the guy’ has never been an issue for me. I put a precedent on winning over everything else; my personal success is secondary to the team’s success, and it’s always been that way. I’m joining a team that went to the MLS Cup final last year, so there were no delusions on my part that I would come in here to move someone out of their spot.
“Throughout all my years in this league, I’ve seen some great examples of selfless leaders. I saw Carlos Llamosa at Chivas USA who was a big-time defender with D.C. United. He would show up every day and push the young guys every day and keep himself ready for when he was needed. To see a guy like that so early in my career helped me understand that I would be in the same position down the line. I can either accept it and excel at be one of those guys that’s fighting against reality.”
When called upon, Hernandez has been as reliable as ever, and his efforts on the training ground have raised his teammates’ level as they aim to do one better in 2017 and bring that elusive championship home.
“It’s been amazing, much better than I could have ever anticipated,” he says of Toronto. “The city has a very unique and electric buzz. The club is first-class, the best I’ve ever been a part of. The overall vibe I get from Toronto and Canada in general has been a great experience. I can’t wait to see the city come alive as we get into the playoffs and just experience that.”