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What do we do about Héber?

Will the Pigeon’s No. 9 be a leading man once again?

Héber is popular among the players.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

A lot has changed in the Bronx since the Brazilian forward known simply as Héber first joined New York City FC. One of the major signings to a post-David Villa roster, Héber was a sorely-needed addition to a team that was struggling to score goals on a consistent basis. Signed in late March of the 2019 season to replace the underwhelming Jo Inge Berget, Héber paced NYCFC for the rest of the season with 15 goals and three assists as the No. 9, and soon became a fan favorite among the supporters.

Even the skeptics here at Hudson River Blue welcomed Héber with open arms. At 27-years-old, it appeared that NYCFC had found a striker entering his prime who could solidify that position for the next few years to come. But, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.

Decline, then the injury

The 2020 MLS season brought a different energy for Héber and the club. Already suffering from the pandemic and the shortened season that emerged from that reality, Héber and the team also struggled offensively for much of the season. Even though the conditions were not ideal, it is still interesting to note that his xG per 90 minutes went down almost by a half, going from 0.6 in 2019 down to 0.33 in 2020.

Héber started 11 games in 2020, playing close to 900 minutes, and scored only one goal. Sadly, his season ended abruptly in late September with a devastating knee injury. Héber suffered a torn ACL in his knee, and was sidelined for nearly the entirety of the 2021 MLS season.

That brings us to the start of the 2022 MLS Season. So much has changed these past three years. The once-entering-his-prime striker now finds himself staring at the other side of 30, and his role has changed from starter to bench player. We would be remiss to not mention how Héber’s absence in 2021 allowed Taty Castellanos to emerge as one of the best attacking players in MLS, and that NYCFC won the title behind his play. No doubt Héber would love to regain his place in the lineup and show he is still able to play as a top-tier striker in MLS. But can he?

From starter to super-sub

As stated, Héber is now serving as a late-game sub as opposed to a starting forward. Part of that is due to the club bringing him along slowly as he recovers from his knee injury. Another part is that Castellanos has rightly supplanted him as the team’s leading forward, and the 19-year-old Talles Magno is getting game time to prepare him to be the next leader of NYCFC’s attack.

Another part may be that the team has evolved since he first arrived in the Bronx. Let’s dive into that a bit more.

As far as the opportunities available to Héber, they have been sparing so far to start the season. While he has made four appearances in four MLS regular season games, only two of those have exceeded the 15-minute mark. In both of those, manager Ronny Deila was looking for an offensive spark to either win, or tie the game back up, but the goals simply weren’t there.

This is not to cast blame on Héber, but rather to highlight how minimal the chances have been for him. Still, there is a glimmer of hope. For his last substitute appearance against the Philadelphia Union, Héber played a full 45-minute half. Perhaps more minutes are in store for him in the near future.

What has been notable is that in several of these substitute appearances, Castellanos stayed on the pitch. Delia has been subbing on Héber to play a dual-striker tandem with Castellanos. It’ll be interesting to see if Delia envisions a return for Héber in the Starting XI that employs two strikers up top. While this would be good news for Héber, it would dramatically change the tactics and formation that the club has used since pretty much its inception—a Castellanos and Héber pairing would be the first time any NYCFC squad has utilized two strikers for considerable lengths of the game. But in reality, this could be the only way at this point that Héber could see himself back as a fixture in the Starting XI.

New era, new roles

Part of the challenge facing Héber is that the club has changed dramatically since he first joined NYCFC in 2019. A team that was starved for attacking creativity now has an abundance of riches in that category. And with so much more attacking talent, the team has operated in a more dynamic style of soccer than when Héber was taking center stage.

It was also a team under different management. Signed by Claudio Reyna, Héber is playing in a squad largely built by current sporting director David Lee. The club Héber entered in 2019 came to revolve around him because it needed him. Now, Héber must learn to adjust his game to fit with the other players and compete with forwards who already know the system and what Delia expects from his squad.

The question for Héber isn’t “Can he be the starting forward like he used to be?” Frankly, that ship has sailed, and it might not change even if Taty Castellanos is sold. The question for Héber is more “Can he make the most of the roles he will be given now?”

It’s not just about what happens on the field—Héber has a reputation for being popular in the clubhouse. Will he be that veteran leader that helps clear the path for the younger talent on this team to grow and flourish? With the signing of Gabriel Pereira, NYCFC now has four Brazilian players on its roster, not to mention other South American players like Santiago Rodriguez, Taty Castellanos, and Nicolas Acevedo. There is a lot of young talent who would really benefit from the leadership Héber can provide.

He could mentor these players from the sidelines, but he can make a greater impact on the pitch at critical points this season. Can Héber reclaim the precious playing time he once was virtually guaranteed? If he does, what will it look like now on a team that is more talented and potent than when he first arrived?

The Héber storyline will be an important one to follow this season. Not just because we’re rooting for the Brazilian striker, but because it could determine the success of the club itself.