No bigger question needed answering this season more than this one — how will New York City FC make up for the loss of David Villa? Since the inception of this club, Villa has been the talisman for all things NYCFC. He was the captain, he was the heart and soul, he was in every sense of the phrase the team’s best player. From winning golden boots to League MVP trophies, nobody could have asked for a better four years from David Villa than what he gave to the Bronx. But like all things, Villa’s time with the club came to an end. He’s now playing in Japan, and the club has had to move forward.
No one expected that transition to be an easy one, but City’s inability to add a new striker during the winter caused even more consternation among the fanbase. Domènec Torrent employed various tactics to try and make up for the lack of a true striker in the formation; players like Maxi Moralez, Taty Castellanos, and Jesus Medina had all taken their turns playing up top, in a sort of “False 9” to start the season. The results were less than encouraging, as City really struggled to start the season in their attack. And the club’s newest Designated Player, Alexandru Mitriță, was clearly brought in to play exclusively as a left winger, which he has all season. So City was desperately in need of a striker as the weeks went on.
The Brazilian striker arrived to New York City FC on March 21, 2019. But due to the visa process, and untimely minor injuries in training, he did not play his first game until April 6th, when he was subbed on against the Montreal Impact. After another sub appearance, Héber made his first start against D.C. United notching a goal and assist in City’s 2-0 win over D.C. - the club’s first win of the season. In fact, since Héber has joined the Starting XI NYCFC have won 5 games, with a record 5-0-3 and a goal differential of +9 in those 8 games. Héber has been a key cog to the team’s success over this span, scoring 6 goals and tallying 3 assists.
Upon signing the 27 year old attacker, NYCFC definitely rolled out the red carpet, considering Héber a marquee signing.
But there was some doubt regarding his ability before Héber ever played a game for City. For one, while NYCFC billed him as their new No. 9. Héber had played primarily as a left winger at his previous club, HNK Rijeka in Croatia. Many fans felt that Reyna and Torrent had still failed to find the target man the attack desperately needed. Another concern was whether or not he would be able to transition well to MLS, having played in Croatia — a league many would perhaps consider inferior to Major League Soccer. Héber put many of those fears to rest when he banged home his first goal of the season.
That deft, clinical finish was just an opening salvo of things to come for Héber and New York City FC. His talent has become apparent, not just in his own goal scoring ability, but also in his ability to make plays for others. Mitriță, Moralez, Castellanos, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi have all benefited from Héber’s presence as the focal point of the attack. The attack has greatly improved, and City has become a much more notably lethal team in front of goal since his introduction. The numbers bare this out as well. City is averaging a clean 2 goals per game in Héber’s 8 starts this season. Even if you remove the 5-spot they just put on FC Cincinnati, the team still comes in at a healthy 1.5 goals per game in those other 7 starts. Prior to Héber, however, the team struggled, scoring only 7 goals in it’s first 6 games, with 3 of them coming in a single road match against Minnesota United. City had suffered 3 games already in the season having failed to score a single goal, including the match against a 10-man Montreal Impact. It’s clear Héber was the missing piece this team needed.
Now, is Héber as good as David Villa? No, of course not. Villa is a legendary player known globally, a World Cup winner, and a legendary DP in MLS that only a very short list can compare to. Héber does not have Villa’s ability on the ball, his ability to create a chance out of seemingly nothing, or the work rate Villa showed time and time again as NYCFC’s captain. But, you know what? That’s okay. Héber was never meant to be a replacement for Villa. Héber is not even a Designated Player. But he is exactly what this very talented collection of attacking players needed: a focal point for the attack to build from. And the results have spoke for themselves.