Atlanta United continued its busy offseason with the loan signing of Venezuelan right-back Ronald Hernandez from Aberdeen.
The 23-year-old has been a rumored target for the Five Stripes for a while now and will add experience and depth to what is quickly becoming an exciting roster.
Gabriel Heinze’s squad is starting to take shape, but where does Hernandez fit into it all? Let’s take a look.
What role will Hernandez play for Atlanta United?
One of the greatest creator-to-goalscorer relationships in Major League Soccer over recent years was Julian Gressel’s partnership with Josef Martinez, with the former setting up eight goals for the latter during the 2019 regular season alone.
The arrival of Brooks Lennon prior to the 2020 season was supposed to offset the departure of Gressel, but Martinez’s ACL injury put pay to that idea. Lennon clearly has a decent delivery, completing 24 crosses into the 18-yard box last season — at least three times more than any other Atlanta player — but he by no means has that right-back or right-wing-back role locked down.
Hernandez — a 17-time international at the senior level for Venezuela — will be directly competing with Lennon for this spot. Prior to joining Aberdeen in January 2020, Hernandez spent two-and-a-half years in Norway with Stabaek, where he managed seven assists in 61 appearances. Sure, they’re not Gressel numbers, but his 2019 campaign especially, where he notched four assists in 27 league appearances, is extremely solid given he played for a side that finished right in mid-table as the fifth-lowest scorers in the league.
Looking at his actions map from that campaign below (provided by Smarterscout), you can see Hernandez is very much a two-way full-back, eager to get involved in his side’s play at both ends of the pitch, while also unafraid to drift inside to provide his team with a numerical advantage through the middle.
Also worth noting is the level of short passes as he gets into the opposition half, where he will get involved in short passing sequences with his teammates, as well as his propensity to go it alone when he gets to the top of the box, even if he can run down the odd blind alley.
“It’s difficult to predict how his end product will translate to MLS given the complicated last two years he’s had, but this is, by all means, a player who’s shown he can set up goals,” Dominic Bisogno of FUTVE English told Dirty South Soccer. “Playing with someone like Josef Martínez, with who he has a certain amount of history, could potentially unlock a new wavelength for him in the attack.”
According to Smarterscout’s style ratings, which score a player from 1-99 on specific traits in a similar fashion to the FIFA video games, Hernandez is extremely strong on the ground both with and without possession, with his speed and tenacity making him tough to dribble past, while also making him a powerful asset going forward.
Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to ball retention and Hernandez is prone to losing the ball needlessly in his own half. But overall, he is a player with plenty of energy and mobility, with plenty of attacking instincts, so should fit very well into Heinze’s system.
Why didn’t it work at Aberdeen and can Hernandez hit the ground running in MLS?
Given his awful run at Aberdeen, playing just six games since January 2020, it’s fair to say there is an understandable level of skepticism among Atlanta United supporters around what Hernandez can actually offer to the team. However, it’s important to remember that Josef Martinez himself arrived in Georgia off the back of a poor spell across the Atlantic, and soon went on to become one of the, if not the best striker in North America.
Dirty South Soccer also spoke to Dr Luis Aguilar, a board member from Hernandez’s youth team in Venezuela, Palacio Fajardo, to gain an insight on why things didn’t quite work out for the defender in Scotland.
“It is good to highlight that on his debut with Aberdeen, Hernandez was named Man of the Match. But from there, manager Dereck McInnes dropped him, instead using a formation with three central defenders where there was no space for the Venezuelan,” he said. “In addition, in training when he was performing outstandingly, only the assistant coach approached him, never McInnes. It was neither the English language, which he masters at a good level, nor the low temperatures, as he had just come from playing in Norway, nor the absence of his family, whom he was never able to bring to Scotland. It was the technical and tactical decisions made by McInnes that led to his departure to MLS, to a club that had already shown interest in his services since the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup (where Hernandez helped Venezuela finish as runner-up).”
Bisogno also backs Hernandez to have a similar impact to Martinez in MLS, despite enduring a poor time in Europe, just as his compatriot did.
“A major point that has to be kept in mind when considering this sort of thing is that of Josef Martínez at Atlanta United,” Bisogno added. “Martínez arrived at the club, on loan from Torino, with an underwhelming goal count and a lack of starts. At first glance, there was not necessarily a lot to suggest he’d prove one of the league’s best-ever strikers. While I don’t necessarily think that means Hernández will reach the same heights, because it’s impossible to predict that, I do think it reflects that a poor run of form in Europe doesn’t always mean the player can’t make it work in MLS.”
Is he here for the long haul?
While Josef Martinez would arguably have the pick of numerous options in Europe, it appears he’s very settled in Atlanta, having taken the city to his heart and been embraced by the fans in return.
However, there is a growing trend of players, both South American and domestic, using MLS as a springboard to move to Europe. Despite his previous struggles in Scotland, success at Stabaek will no doubt leave Hernandez hungry for more, regardless of whether or not this loan is made permanent.
“Hernández is young and has had a taste of top-flight European football, I doubt he doesn’t plan to return to it at some point,” said Bisogno. “Whether or not that happens after this loan or later depends on a seriously long list of factors, most obvious of which is his form this year and where Atlanta United find themselves financially next offseason.”
Aguilar, meanwhile, believes Hernandez’s main focus should be on the short-term, re-establishing himself as a starting XI caliber player, while adding some trophies to his collection with the Five Stripes.
He said: “Ronald already has three years under his belt in Europe, where he arrived after the U-20 World Cup. Stabilizing and continuing to grow should be his main goal, and winning trophies [with Atlanta United]. That [will help him] in the medium and long-term.
“He is a tireless worker that can contribute to Atlanta United, being a model of discipline, being the first to arrive and the last to leave training. This is in addition to doing extra work on his own and being extremely careful with his diet. The length of his stay in the USA will depend on Atlanta United.”