Raised in Phoenix's soccer culture, José Hernández is now aiming to lead Phoenix Rising FC to its first USL Championship title on Sunday night. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
Growing up in the West side of Phoenix, for José Hernández there was nothing better than the local soccer scene when he was a kid.
“I mean, it was awesome, playing with family and friends,” he said this week “At the end of the day, it’s pretty competitive. Everybody wants to win. So, you definitely get a real good workout.
“To be fair, I think that was a big step in my development, because I was always one of the younger kids playing in those sorts of leagues. At times, you’re playing against grown men, grown adults, so it definitely helped shape who I was going to become as a player.”
Playing alongside his father José Martín and older brother Anselmo, Hernández’s experience was the formative first step in a journey that has seen him compete at one of the top Academies in the country, play for a top college program, and experience the ups and downs of a professional career that has now come full circle with Phoenix Rising FC.
This Sunday night, the 27-year-old will suit up for the USL Championship Final having become an integral part of his hometown club’s lineup. In the center of midfield, Hernández has been the player that holds everything together for his possession-oriented squad. With a pass completion rate of 91.6 percent, he ranks first in Rising FC’s squad in that category, and second in the league among players with at least 1,000 completed passes this season.
But it wasn’t always thus.
In fact, due to his age, his size, and his qualities as a playmaker, Hernández was a No. 10 as he came through the ranks, with Lionel Messi understandably the player he wanted to emulate when he was on the field.
“I'm right in that generation that got to see Messi his whole career from start to finish,” said Hernández. “So, growing up as he was definitely my favorite player. I think as the years go by my soccer changed a little bit, but definitely from a younger age I was trying to do everything he did.”
It got people’s attention.
José Hernández made his debut for Real Monarchs SLC as a USL Academy signing, and then spent part of two seasons on loan from Real Salt Lake after turning pro. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
As a 15-year-old, he was invited to become part of the Real Salt Lake Academy based in Casa Grande, Arizona. There, Hernández shared the field with a talented crop of future professionals, including current RSL players Justen Glad and Erik Holt, and future United States internationals Sebastian Saucedo, Aaron Herrera and Brooks Lennon.
Hernández saw his future.
“That was beautiful, man,” he said. “It was soccer 24/7. At a young age, you start taking the sport a little more serious when it’s the only thing that you have to focus on. And honestly, it was the only thing we kind of had to get our heads off of anything else because we were isolated out in Casa Grande. A lot of us were young, away from families. For me personally, just enjoying the game and seeing that it could be something I could pursue was beautiful.”
That belief continued to build alongside his progression. He made his USL Championship debut as an 18-year-old USL Academy signing for Real Monarchs SLC before heading to UCLA, and after two seasons playing for the Bruins was offered a Homegrown Player contract to return to Utah with RSL.
From there, though, things didn’t quite go to plan. While playing regularly for the Monarchs, he saw just 160 minutes of action in Major League Soccer before being released.
“Timing at times is especially a factor,” said Hernández. “I think when I showed up, the club as a whole went through a turbulent process with numerous coaches. Guys coming in, guys coming out. Being on the younger side and being someone that’s just arriving at the club, it can get difficult, especially when tensions are high, when pressure is high, and everyone is kind of out there to try to secure their own well-being.
“I think that had a part to play. But at the end of the day, it was another learning experience.”
Hernández headed back to Southern California and signed for the LA Galaxy II in 2019. After making 31 appearances for the club that season, he was on the move again in the Championship, this time to OKC Energy FC for another one-season stint.
Then in 2021, he landed at newly-arrived Championship club Oakland Roots SC, and things came back into focus.
“Once I got to Oakland, I found a new position that helped me a lot, and then a little bit more fresh air,” said Hernández. “I was comfortable. I knew California, so it was just good to be back.”
José Hernández recorded 55 appearances for Oakland Roots SC over two seasons, becoming a strong central midfielder in the USL Championship as his game matured. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
At the start of his second season at Roots SC, he also acquired an ally in Juan Guerra. Appointed as the club’s new Head Coach prior to the 2022 season, the former midfielder saw in Hernandez someone who’s on-ball qualities fit the way he envisioned his side playing.
“As a head coach, you have your identity and you start working on your style of play and your game model,” said Guerra. “Sometimes it’s not all about what you want to do as a Head Coach, but it's also about what you have, what is it that you have available? And then how can they adapt, what do you have that’s available to your identity, and also the identity of the club and putting those three together?”
Guerra saw Hernández’s willingness to drop deeper from his No. 10 role to pick up possession and create and decided to try something different. In a preseason game against FC Tulsa, Hernández moved into a holding midfield role, and shone.
“We put him in the base, in one of those pivots in front of the center backs,” said Guerra. “And this kid was the best player on the field. He was playing with so much rhythm, with so much speed, versatility being able to help on build-up but then breaking lines playing forward. I grabbed him and I said, ‘As long as I’m here, I don’t think you’re going to play as a No. 10 anymore.’”
“Just like I was able to excel at Oakland my first year there, when [Juan] came in I was even able to take that to another level,” added Hernández. “I think a lot of it has to do with having those same viewpoints in terms of soccer and interpersonal level. We’re both good people and I think we show that to each other. So just having that confidence from him and reciprocating is huge. I think it shows on field.”
After Guerra’s departure from Oakland to take the helm at Rising FC last August, it didn’t take long for him to come calling for his midfield general. For Hernández it was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, not only reuniting with the coach that had helped him elevate his game, but also returning to the community that had provided his foundation.
José Hernández has become a key part of Phoenix Rising FC's midfield this season, with his precise passing helping the side retain possession and shift into its attacking gears. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
“It was definitely something on my wish list,” said Hernandez of playing for Rising FC. “And it was always a goal of mine. To be honest, it’s no secret that Phoenix is one of the top teams in this league. Any player is pretty grateful to have the opportunity to be here. Me being home, it just adds a little extra motivation, a sense of pride.”
Over the second half of the season, Hernández has become an instrumental part of Rising FC’s lineup. He’s made 16 consecutive starts since early August, combining with Panamanian international Carlos Harvey to bring balance and control to the center of the park for the side.
Instead of Messi from the FC Barcelona squad that he grew up idolizing, it’s now Sergio Busquets that his game resembles with a simplified mindset that reflects his maturation as a player.
“I pride myself in being someone that's going to keep possession,” said Hernández. “I’m someone that gets mad when I lose possession, someone that wants to regain that possession right back, and connect those simple passes and make the team shift, make the team move.”
José Hernández celebrates with the Western Conference Final trophy after Phoenix Rising FC's victory against Sacramento Republic FC last weekend. | Photo courtesy Irina Filenko / Sacramento Republic FC
What’s more, for the players now starting to emerge from Rising FC’s burgeoning Academy system, he’s the role model that shows what can be possible.
“He has that joy, that pride, and that sense of belonging,” said Guerra “When he plays and he represents the team and the city, he is giving back. He’s given back to the community. He’s given back to the people that come here and feel very identified and well represented by him on the field.
“He’s also a clear example to the ball boys and girls that we have from the academy or from youth clubs around the area that they can see a local kid that worked his way all the way up to the professional team. It’s great, and we should have more stories like this one.”
As he prepares to play in his first professional final, there’s nothing more that Hernández wants than to bring Rising FC’s first Championship title back to his hometown.
“It is pretty engraved in our minds because we know the history – obviously me a little bit more than others just because I grew up here,” he said. “Over my career, I’ve seen everything this club has done and to just be a part of that team that makes history and achieves something that’s going to stand and live for a long, long time is very exciting.
“To be a part of that would be amazing. And we’re ready to do it.”