CHARLESTON, S.C. — When Cristian Fernandez was welcomed to this world 28 years ago in the northern Spanish region of Cantabria, his birth came with a slight parental dilemma. His father wanted his name to be “Cristian.” His mother, meanwhile, lobbied for the alternative spelling “Christian.”
As far as the official documents are concerned, his father won out. But on the field, his jersey reads “Christian” — H included.
“It’s a little homage to my mother,” Fernandez said via a translator this week at the Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament. “Ever since I was a little kid, my mother had a lot of confidence in me. She always told me that I could dedicate myself to playing soccer, told me to fight with it.
“The day I made it, I decided to change the name on my jersey so she could be with me every [game] when I take the pitch.”
Fernandez has done plenty to make his mother proud over the past decade. Working his way up through Racing Santander’s youth academy, he reached the pinnacle of Spanish soccer by playing in La Liga against such giants as Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Now, the left back is tackling a new challenge after leaving his native land and signing with D.C. United. An avid fan of U.S. culture staples from Hollywood cinema to the NBA, Fernandez strayed from options in Germany and England and instead chose to play a part in the sport’s American evolution.
“This is an up-and-coming league that’s very attractive to players in Europe,” Fernandez said. “It’s still not quite what a European league is, obviously, but that’s mostly a time thing — European leagues have a lot more history. I get the impression that MLS aims to be one of the major sports in this country, considered alongside baseball, the NFL and all of that.”
Fernandez acknowledges his progress has been slow since he signed earlier this month. The broken right hand suffered in his first training session with United didn’t help matters. Neither did the flights across the Atlantic to get his move stateside sorted out.
The time-zone change has made sleep hard to come by, and the timing of American meals will also take some getting used to for the Spaniard. On the field, though, the adjustment has been easier.
“Defensively, he’s hard. He’s good on offensive set pieces and defending them as well. There’s a lot of things we like about him,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “I’m looking forward to him getting settled, and I know he’s looking forward to kind of exhaling a little bit as well and being in one place for a little bit.”
Once acclimated, Fernandez figures to be a valuable asset to a United back line that allowed the second-most goals in MLS last season. After leaving Racing in 2012, Fernandez helped second-division Almeria earn promotion to the top flight last spring before parting ways with the club in late December.
“You’re bringing in a guy who has been at the top level,” United right back Sean Franklin said. “He’s experienced, he’s a hard worker. Obviously there’s a language barrier there with him being from Spain, but the thing is football is the universal language.”
After the club went through Chris Korb, Taylor Kemp, James Riley, Daniel Woolard, Dennis Iapichino and Alain Rochat at left back last year, Fernandez is seen as the clear answer at that revolving door of a position.
Come the season opener March 8, Fernandez is slated to join fellow offseason acquisitions Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Franklin — all veterans capped by the U.S. national team — in a completely rebuilt United defense.
“We’ve got to jell and come together, with so many new pieces,” Fernandez said. “On the surface, the turnover makes it a bit harder for the club to look connected, to look in sync. But I think we have a very strong base here for sure.”