A little over an hour ago, DC United announced that they had signed 23 year old Argentine forward Pablo Hernandez on loan from Uruguay's Club Defensor Sporting. Hernandez has been quietly training with United for the past three weeks, and apparently impressed enough to earn himself a contract. Like Branko Boskovic, Hernandez is ineligible to suit up for United until July 15th, the day the summer transfer window opens.
At 6' tall and 180 pounds, it seems reasonable to expect Hernandez to have no real trouble with MLS's physical style of play. However, that is no guarantee that he'll be able to cope with the early pressure MLS defenders apply (that, even more than his size, was Cristian Castillo's biggest problem). If Hernandez is used to having the ball at his feet for more than a split second, he's going to have to be extravagantly skillful or have a sharply developed ability to find and exploit spaces faster than defenders can close them down.
What else does this mean to United? What about current players in danger of being let go?First of all, this signing is obviously more evidence that Luciano Emilio's time in DC is coming to an end. His three month contract was always unlikely to end with goals and an extension, especially when he spent the first month of that deal getting fit. His unfortunate collision with Ronnie Pascale last night apparently knocked him out; the likely concussion he picked up was probably going to leave him out injured for the remainder of his deal anyway.
One hopes that Hernandez is more than just Emilio's replacement on this roster. After all, we're talking about the 2010 Emilio, who is likely Curt Onalfo's fifth choice striker at this point. We don't just need to maintain our numbers at forward; we need to improve the top-level quality, or we're going to keep seeing frustrating games where we create more chances (especially early) yet end up losing to a team that is more ruthless in the box. Hernandez's scoring record (5 goals in 25 appearances over the last 2 seasons) does not point to him scoring 10 goals in the second half of this MLS season. On the other hand, he's just 23, so there's a reasonable possibility that he was often being used as a substitute. I'd love to know how often he scores per 90 minutes played, but that's still an imperfect indicator.
I will say that United appears to be doing a better job of picking up on weak spots in the roster and improving them. Even in the preseason, we went about addressing our weak spots in a rather straightforward, sequential order. No left midfielder? Sign one from a CONCACAF nation. No strikers? Sign an A-League star and a reliable MLS reserve. No top goalkeeper? Sign a guy capped with the national team. Need a veteran center back? Pick up a guy with 300+ matches in La Liga. These haven't been perfect moves, obviously, but they have shown attention to what was wrong. During Tom Soehn's time here, it seemed like the players we signed were just signed because we needed someone, anyone that could play professional soccer. You'd really prefer to see a combination of good planning and signing guys that can be stars in MLS, but it's still some kind of progress. Our front office knows what Onalfo wants or needs in terms of positions, and they go about trying to get guys that fit those spots.
There are, however, reasons United fans might not be very optimistic about this. Those reasons can be summed up briefly as Donnet, Carvallo, Martinez, Peralta, Niell, and Gallardo. This club has had a terrible run of signing players from CONMEBOL leagues (especially Argentines). In Donnet's case, it was just the wrong formation. Everyone else, though, was either not good enough, disinterested, injured, or some combination of all three. These players generally cost more than most, and we all know about how tight MLS's salary cap is. Botching this many signings has left fans with little faith in general manager Dave Kasper, who appears to be the least popular person attached to United amongst fans. Even if Boskovic was mostly scouted by Chad Ashton (couldn't find the link to the article that said that...if someone can help me out in the comments, I'd be much obliged), the players coming in for this window will probably be Kasper's last chance to keep his job.
Boskovic and Hernandez both come in with some pressure on them (Boskovic more than Hernandez). We need both players to succeed if this season is going to amount to anything. Despite our recent improvements at pretty much everything, we're still very deep in the hole we spent March, April, and May digging. We need to become a more complicated foe to slow down on the attack, and we need to punish teams for conceding chances to us. It seems pretty likely to me that, if we make other moves in the window, we're talking about flank players and depth. Barring the acquisition of a dynamite winger that MLS defenders can't cope with, Boskovic and Hernandez are probably our front office's best shot at salvaging this season.