The man everyone wanted to see did what everyone not glad in orange and blue wanted him to do in the game that mattered most in the regular season.
Making his home debut in the most anticipated game yet in the ‘Hell Is Real’ rivalry, Crew forward Cucho Hernandez broke the deadlock in the 16th-minute with a header off a set piece from Lucas Zelarayan in a 2-0 win against FC Cincinnati (7-8-6, 27 points) in front of a sold-out crowd of 20,471 at Lower.com Field on Sunday night.
Zelarayan sealed the victory in the 86th-minute with a penalty kick for his first goal since March 12.
The Crew (7-5-8, 29 points) jumped Cincinnati to the sixth spot in the MLS Eastern Conference standings and moved into playoff position for the first time since early spring.
“I thought it was a pretty complete performance, both sides of the ball,” coach Caleb Porter said. “The guys really wanted to make a bit of a statement against a rival. They knew what was at stake.”
After scoring two goals against DC United in just 45 minutes on Wednesday, and scoring the game-winner against the Chicago Fire the prior weekend, Hernandez’s first game in front of a home crowd couldn’t have been more hyped.
He said it felt like a rivalry for the first minute.
“I enjoyed it, and I’m very happy that we kept Hell at home,” Hernandez said through a club interpreter.
He showed his quality in the 10th minute when he received a pass from Darlington Nagbe and made a single touch before turning and shooting, all in one motion. That shot was saved. Goalkeeper Roman Celentano had no chance on the next one.
Sprinting toward the near post as Zelarayan’s delivery swung toward goal, Hernandez burst ahead to beat everyone to the ball and flicked the ball behind him and just inside the opposite post. Hernandez immediately sprinted toward the corner flag in front of the Nordecke with his tongue sticking out and beat his chest in celebration.
The energy inside Lower.com Field was palpable from kickoff but was exponentially louder once the player who was signed to be the guy to send the Crew toward championship contention provided another jaw-dropping moment to continue his reign of terror at the start of his Crew career.
The Crew withstood multiple pushes from Cincinnati but limited them to just one shot on goal. Goalkeeper Eloy Room made an impressive save in the third minute as he made a kick save on the goal line on a shot from Alvaro Barreal. That save from Room ended up being a big one as it set the stage for a home win the Crew desperately needed to extend their unbeaten streak to eight game — their longest-such streak since 2018.
“If he doesn’t make that save, it would be different,” Porter said.
Zelarayan had a shot atop the box in the 83rd minute that was blocked by the arm of Cincinnati midfielder Obinna Nwobodo. Awarded the penalty kick, Zelarayan hesitated on his approach to send Celentano the wrong way and buried the shot inside the right post.
He sprinted toward the fans on the south end as he jumped into the arms of his teammates. Zelarayan pointed to the Crew logo on his jersey as he yelled in celebration.
“I feel the derby, like, very passionate and I like to play this kind of game,” Zelarayan said. “I like to win and I like to see the people happy and, too, with that passion.”
This game meant the most to him and the rest of the team — so does Hernandez’s presence on a team that’s thriving with 14 games to play.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism