Playoffs in Profile: Hernandez a natural born leader
Back in elementary school, Daniel Hernandez made a run at student council president behind the slogan “Vote for the Man in the Mirror.”
He gave his final speech to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” addressing his audience through a large reflective glass. He won, of course.
Fast forward a little more than 20 years and it doesn’t take mirrors and pop music for Hernandez to stake his position as the leader of an FC Dallas side one match away from advancing to MLS Cup for the first time in club history.
“It is a fascinating case study in terms of group and team dynamics,” says Steve Jolley, Director of Corporate Partnerships at SMU and a former teammate of Hernandez's in LA and NY.
When he says it’s a case study, he’s not kidding.
Jolley, who spent 10 years in MLS, is profiling the role Hernandez has had in the rise of FC Dallas in an MBA course called “Managing Organizations.”
Hernandez was still working on negotiating a return to the Mexican league in the summer of 2009, when his former college coach at SMU, Schellas Hyndman, invited him to train and keep fit with FC Dallas.
After eventually signing with the team on Sept. 8, 2009, Hernandez didn’t take long to make his voice heard, confronting then captain Pablo Ricchetti about a locker room that was rife with issues.
Before Hyndman knew it, his stuttering 6-11-6 side won five of the last seven and missed the postseason by a single point. After Hernandez won a starting spot, Ricchetti was nowhere to be found.
“The fact that Schellas won Coach of the Year is because Daniel is indirectly responsible,” Jolley says. “To go from good to great, you’ve got to get the right people on the bus and that bus is being driven by Daniel. He’s got everyone going in the same direction.”
Early Days In LA
Current Kansas City Wizards assistant coach and former Galaxy boss Octavio Zambrano drafted Hernandez No. 18 overall to LA in 1998, amassing maybe the best collection of draft picks by any MLS team: Clint Mathis, Joey Franchino, Matt Reis and Hernandez.
“I knew I was drafting national team material,” Zambrano says. “He was a kid with incredible abilities not only as a player, but also as a leader. Those two things are hard to find.”
But Hernandez was unaccepting of the fact that he couldn’t break into the Galaxy’s starting lineup, and the resulting attitude and “angst,” as Zambrano called it, was evident for everyone to see.
“A lot of it was my fault, I couldn’t adapt,” Hernandez admits today. “As a kid, if I couldn’t play a game I was nearly crying. Even today I’d feel hurt if I couldn’t play in a game. I don’t think any of that ever changed for me.”
“He was someone that stood up for himself and knew that he wanted to be great and knew that the only way to be great was to show people he could play,” Reis says. “That swagger, that attitude is what you need to build a team.”
When Zambrano took over the MetroStars rebuilding project in 2000, he traded for Hernandez, who had been languishing in Tampa Bay. On a MetroStars team that featured volatile German legend Lothar Matthäus, Hernandez enjoyed a breakout season, often playing at sweeper during the long stretches Matthäus was out injured.
Even when the German returned, Zambrano made sure Hernandez stayed in the lineup at holding midfield. Only an ACL tear managed to keep the 24-year-old All-Star off the field in a season which Hernandez believes should have ended with an MLS Cup.
“We had such an attitude as a team and such a cockiness, and we were a team that never accomplished anything,” Petke recalls. “I would attribute a lot of that to Daniel and myself. We walked around like we were the best team in history. It was part ego and part chip on our shoulder, and we heard it so many times from other teams: ‘Who do you guys think you are?’”
The next year a 25-year-old Hernandez wore the captain’s armband in New York ahead of players like Petke and veterans Tab Ramos and Richie Williams.
“His M.O. was always to come to training with aggressiveness and he was always tough,” Zambrano says. “Sometimes other guys had a tough time matching that. A lot of players just go through the motions. Daniel was not like that, ever.”
The edge that Hernandez has carried can partly be attributed to a phone call he received in December 1998 that is the nightmare of every family.
His brother Nico, then a rising sophomore soccer star in his own right at SMU, was driving back to school in bad weather on his way to another practice. Construction on a freeway flooded the highway and Nico’s car hydroplaned, resulting in a crash that killed his friend and left Nico with a severed spinal cord – paralysis from the chest down.
Hernandez, who was in his offseason at the time, was the one who received the call and made the drive to give his parents the news face-to-face.
Nico, who was a schemer and trickster on the field, played at SMU with his brother as a freshman. He was also Daniel’s back-up kicker with the football team, which allowed both brothers to play soccer on a scholarship.
“I couldn’t imagine going through what he’s been through and he has the strength to keep fighting,” Hernandez said. “He’s definitely an inspiration. I know he would have been a pro soccer player and at times I feel like I’m playing for both of us and I want to make him proud.”
He couldn’t have made Nico and his family any prouder when he fulfilled his family’s dream and landed a spot with Mexican first division club Necaxa in 2003. His father’s side of the family, lifelong Club América and Mexican soccer fans, were beside themselves when Hernandez scored against las Aguilas in their first ever trip to the mythical Estadio Azteca.
We Are Family
Hernandez bounced back and forth for a few years between Mexico and MLS, namely with the New England Revolution. But while in Mexico, he took a mental note of how players in the Primera División spent more time together than they did in MLS, and he’s made it a staple of his captaincy at FC Dallas.
“It’s always about the team for Daniel,” FCD midfielder Dax McCarty said. “He is always hosting barbeques and putting on functions for the team and getting us to do stuff off the field together. That’s ultimately what makes championship caliber teams, when they to spend time together off the field.”
The Hernandez family is a fixture at the team cookouts, and the FCD captain wouldn’t have it any other way. If he sees out the options on his current contract, he could be an FC Dallas player until he’s 38.
“I’m happy and comfortable here,” Hernandez said. “It’s one of the few times I’ve been this happy playing.”
The importance of family is evident by the fact that Hernandez chose to buy a home that was more conveniently located for his family in Tyler than it was for him to commute to practice at Pizza Hut Park.
And it’s no wonder he wants to be close to Tyler, where he first played soccer in the streets with his cousins on a patch of grass just down the block. As a kid he played against grown men in the local adult Mexican soccer league on a team called Zacatepec, made up entirely of uncles and cousins. Perhaps a better name would have been Team Hernandez.
And Tyler loves him back. The town showed its pride by transforming an area on the east side of town that was formerly used as a flea market into Daniel Hernandez Stadium. Today it serves as a home to the weekend adult Mexican league matches that made Hernandez who he is today.
The Hernandezes are soccer royalty in Tyler. Daniel’s younger sister, Sara, is an assistant coach for her brothers’ rival high school, Robert E. Lee. His dad is a soccer coach at local Texas College, where he is assisted by his brother Nico, who serves as a volunteer when surgeries and bed rest don’t interfere with his schedule.
Natural Born Leader
Given his upbringing, Hernandez has probably lived the Mexican-American experience more intensely than most any player that has set foot in MLS.
He grew up speaking Spanish to his Mexican-born, baseball-loving father and English to his white American mother, who managed the family’s office-cleaning business.
Hernandez played soccer while also kicking for the high school and college football teams. He has starred at the highest level in Mexico and MLS and could have kicked in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills had he accepted their invite to training camp.
He was courted by both Mexico and the USA for international duty despite ultimately not appearing for either country. Hernandez’s reputation may have worked against him when it comes to the national team, which to this day remains a sore spot for him.
But the “angst” and attitude of the early days in MLS have given way to a player who is finally at peace with himself, and has a firm grip on his profession.
“I think Schellas has the complete Daniel Hernandez,” Zambrano said. “All the grit and aggressiveness is now coupled with technical ability and experience. And when you have a captain who comes to play every training session, that doesn’t take a break and doesn’t allow other guys to take a break, that’s how you build champions.”
Hernandez might not be a champion yet, but his leadership is unquestionable. More than two decades after he ran for student office as a child, Hernandez can look at himself in the mirror -- like he did during elementary school student elections -- and know that the leadership role his classmates elected him for was meant to be.