TFC veteran Jason Hernandez has grown much like MLS

Jason Hernandez, right, in action for Toronto FC. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

TORONTO – Jason Hernandez has played so many games during his 14 seasons in Major League Soccer that he’s lost count.

When informed that he recently hit the 300-match milestone (regular season and playoff games combined), the veteran Toronto FC defender chuckled.

“If I’m being completely honest, I thought I had reached 300 games a while ago. It feels like I’ve played a trillion,” Hernandez joked to Sportsnet.

“I’ve been a pro for a long time and I know I’ve played a lot of games, but I don’t count ‘em. But [300] is really cool. I haven’t taken it for granted. I feel blessed and fortunate to have stuck around this long. It means a lot.”

In total, Hernandez, who turned 35 last month, has payed 292 regular season games and 10 playoff matches during an MLS career that has seen him turn out for the New York MetroStars, Chivas USA, San Jose Earthquakes, New York City FC and Toronto. Incredibly, he’s never scored a goal – not even one.

Hernandez’s evolution as a player has mirrored that of MLS since he entered the league.

“A lot has changed since 2005 when a lot of teams were still playing in NFL stadiums, and half empty venues. Now, the majority of teams have soccer specific stadiums and have well-known international stars. I’m proud to say I’ve competed against some of the best this league has had to offer,” Hernandez said.

It’s amazing to think that Hernandez is one of a few dozen players in the MLS “300 club” when you consider how his career began. The MetroStars selected Hernandez in the fifth round (54th overall) of the 2005 draft out of Seton Hall University, but he didn’t play a single minute through the first 29 games of that season.

It was only after Bob Bradley was fired as coach and replaced by Mo Johnston that Hernandez saw his first action on Oct. 5, 2005, in the third-last game of the season, playing alongside an 18-year-old Michael Bradley, in a 2-2 draw against the visiting Chicago Fire.

Being able to make his debut at the venerable Giants Stadium was a special moment for Hernandez, who grew up and went to school in New Jersey.

“I wasn’t very highly touted [out of university]. I had to work my way into the team, and didn’t start until the last month of the season. That’s when games meant the most, so to have all my friends and family there, to play at Giants Stadium – which was a hallowed ground for someone like me – to get to walk out onto that field, and make my debut there, it was incredible as a local guy,” Hernandez recalled.

From there, Hernandez went on to become one of the most reliable and durable defenders in the league, winning plaudits for his steady form wherever he’s played, including during a seven-year tenure in San Jose where he won the Supporters’ Shield.

He’s also won widespread respect from teammates and opponents.

“In all honesty, he and I are different players, but I see a lot of myself in him, and I’m sure he sees a lot of himself in me. We’re both grinders. He comes in every single day ready to go and work,” Toronto FC defender Drew Moor, who has played 391 games in MLS, told Sportsnet.

“He and I came into the league at the exact same time, and we’ve followed each other careers closely. Before we became teammates here, we always made time to chat after games whenever we faced each other because we respected each other’s body of work. You don’t win games and you don’t win championships without guys like Jason.”

After being a starter for two seasons with NYCFC, Hernandez signed with Toronto as a free agent in 2017 where he’s been used off the bench and to fill in for injured teammates. He’s only played 17 MLS games for the Reds, but he’s at ease with his role.

“If you were to go back and look at my career as a whole, people would describe it as being solid, dependable and reliable. Those are qualities I take very seriously, and if you do that, you put yourself in a position to always be available and called upon come gameday,” Hernandez said.

Although he didn’t play a single game during last year’s playoff run last year, he counts TFC’s win over the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final as one of his best career highlights.

“Every player is validated by championships, so to be part of a team that will go down as one pf the best ever in MLS, that’s something that’s going to stick with me forever,” Hernandez said.

As for the future, Hernandez is keeping his options open, and is undecided as to what he’ll do after this year – whether to keep playing or retire.

“Once the season ends, I’ll sit down with people here at TFC and my family to decide what’s best. I feel like my role here is to plug in whenever I’m need. I’m very comfortable with that, so I hope to continue to do that for as long as they need me,” Hernandez offered.

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