With 72 regular-season goals and 35 regular-season assists to his name, no-one in the Championship's history has contributed to more goals than the retiring Jorge Herrera. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Jorge Herrera began to break into the professional soccer ranks in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia, a coach told once him, “hey, soccer is going to pass by like a blink.”
“I'm like 19, and thinking, ‘what are you talking about?’” Herrera said this week. “But now, at this point, it's like, that guy was right. It was quick.”
For those that either got to watch Herrera in person or experience what he has done in Charlotte’s soccer community over the past 13 years, however, the memories will last a lifetime.
There’s arguably no-one in the Championship’s history you can more closely associate with the city they represent. The Charlotte Eagles and Charlotte Independence sides that Herrera played for weren’t always great – he played in only three postseasons in the past decade – but Herrera always gave full value for the fans.
No-one in the Championship’s history has contributed to more regular-season goals than he has, with a combined 72 goals and 35 assists placing him second in both categories in the league’s history. He also sits second in regular-season appearances and regular-season minutes, a testament to his consistency as well as his quality.
Jorge Herrera led the Charlotte Eagles to the 2013 USL Championship Final, one of the biggest moments in the league's history. | Photo courtesy Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City SC
And on those occasions the opportunity to shine in the postseason presented itself, Herrera stepped up to the mark. During the Eagles’ run to the 2013 Championship Final, he came through with the game-winning goals in both the Quarterfinals and the Semifinals before one last road miracle failed to materialize in Orlando.
The combination of those achievements, and the grace with which he carried himself on and off the field, will leave a lasting impression on the league he played a significant role in growing.
And, as he tells it, they’ve left a lasting impression on Herrera as well.
“I remember the first year in USL PRO, and you could count the number of teams on your hands,” he said. “Now, what the league has become, it's amazing.
“I feel so blessed to be a part of that growth. Not just for the league, but for soccer in the United States. I remember those days clearly when we played Orlando with 20,000-plus people in the stadium. It was something you'd never imagined at that time. Then going to play in Cincinnati with the same, 20,000 or 25,000, I don't know. We have come so far along as a league.”
There’s no doubt Herrera could have added to his on-field legacy this year. The landmarks of 75 regular-season goals and 250 regular-season appearances would have both been a given, as would potentially becoming the first player to register 40 regular-season assists.
It may be only when the Independence take the field to kick off the new season in two weeks with the lone player to sit above him in the Championship’s goalscoring charts – Dane Kelly – in the club’s colors that it will finally sink in that his playing days are behind him.
“I've been so busy during the offseason that I haven't had the time to really think I'm not going to play anymore,” he said. “I haven't hit the wall yet.”
But for Herrera, there are new opportunities to take on as he turns the page to the next chapter. He’ll still be in soccer, in Charlotte, and that may be what’s going to matter most.
“I have always said I'm so grateful for the Charlotte community in the way they have embraced me and my family since we got here,” said Herrera. “It's been awesome. I'm very honored to somehow, through my sport, through my career, have been able to give back to the community. That's been so nice to see that support.
“That's why I never [played] anywhere else since I got to the United States. I came to play for the Eagles, and I stayed.”
And for that, we’re all grateful.
Jorge Herrera has not only been one of the Championship's best players for the past decade, but also one of the best-loved in the stands within the local fanbase. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence