NEW YORK — Young fans gathered Monday outside a renovated industrial building in SoHo to steal a glimpse of soccer royalty.
The primary object of their affection was not Alex Ferguson, the knighted Scot entering his 25th season as head coach of Manchester United, the fabled English soccer team that will take on the MLS all-stars on Wednesday night. Nor was it Wayne Rooney, the rambunctious and riveting striker who has been bedeviling European defenders and goalkeepers for years.
No, most came to see Javier Hernandez, a 23-year-old forward who, until signing with Manchester United 15 months ago, was scarcely known outside his native Mexico.
“Chicharito!” an admirer called out. It means “Little Pea” and is stamped on the back of his jersey, not unlike a Brazilian star.
Wearing a black-and-blue team polo and flashing a baby-faced smile, Hernandez seemed more suited for a prep school outing than a media appearance on behalf of what Forbes magazine concluded is the most valuable sports organization on the planet.
He is the fresh face of the English Premier League champions, an innate goal scorer who, according to teammates and longtime observers in Mexico, is as pure off the field as he is on it.
Having just returned from Mexican national team duty and vacation, Hernandez might not play against the MLS all-stars at Red Bull Arena or against FC Barcelona on Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover. But as the moment in SoHo on Monday demonstrated, he has claimed elite status.
His global appeal transcends usual soccer stardom because of his roots. Few players from Mexico have thrived overseas, defeated by cultural adjustments and playing styles. Hernandez shattered that trend last season, scoring 13 goals in 27 Premier League appearances and 20 goals in 45 overall competitions for Manchester United.
With Mexico’s national team, he has notched 21 goals in 29 career outings, scored against France at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and, after striking seven times in six games this summer, was named MVP of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“My only thing on my mind is to keep learning,” he said in improving English, which he has spoken since childhood. “I am keeping the dream.”
The dream began in Guadalajara with Mexico’s most popular club, Chivas. Before his rise to prominence, Hernandez was recognized through family ties: His father Javier, a midfielder for Mexican clubs Tecos, Puebla and Morelia, served more than 10 years for the national team and earned a roster spot on the 1986 World Cup squad.
The junior Hernandez’s nickname derived from his father’s moniker, “Chicharo” (Pea), given to him because of his green eyes.
Chicharito’s maternal grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, played for Chivas for a decade and, 56 years before his grandson’s strike last summer, also scored against France in a World Cup.
“Since I was little, football was my ambition,” he said. “My life revolved around football.”
His pro career began conspicuously at age 18 with a goal in his debut against Necaxa. However, it was his only league goal between August 2006 and November 2008. In early 2009, however, his playing time rose significantly — and so did his scoring haul.
During the 2009-10 campaign, he connected in the first five matches and soon received his first invitation to the national team. By the end of Chivas’s season, he had accumulated an astounding 21 goals in 28 matches. European clubs came calling, with Spain as a logical destination.
Manchester United had been tracking him for six months, however, and signed Hernandez to a five-year contract. “The buy of the century,” Rooney said.
In his debut, Hernandez scored against the MLS all-stars in Houston.
“Sir Alex has been renowned for giving young kids chances. It’s one of the reasons why I was so successful,” said MLS all-star David Beckham, who, in 1993 at age 18, made his formal introduction at Manchester United. Hernandez “has taken his chance, he deserves to be there.”
At the World Cup, after serving in a reserve role in the group stage, Hernandez started and scored his second goal of the tournament in a round-of-16 defeat by Argentina. FIFA statistics showed him to be the fastest player during group play in the 32-nation, month-long tournament.
“You can see he is an old-fashioned type of striker,” said Thierry Henry, an MLS all-star and a member of France’s World Cup team last year. “He wants to score goals.”
Hernandez continued his torrid scoring rate at the U.S.-hosted Gold Cup in June with a hat trick against El Salvador, two goals against Cuba and single strikes against Guatemala and Honduras in the knockout stages.
Back with Manchester United this week, Hernandez will return to the spotlight.
“The first and most important thing is to re-energize him, get him the proper training before the first game because the season won’t be decided in the first match,” said Ferguson, whose club will face Manchester City in the FA Community Shield on Aug. 7 at Wembley Stadium and opens the league campaign a week later at West Brom.
“My mind is to work hard every day, to keep improving, learning,” Hernandez said. “To be part of this team is wonderful.”