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Héber’s hot start in Seattle underscores NYCFC’s urgent needs

The ex-NYCFC striker’s early-season goals have some second-guessing the decision to trade him, and those questions will linger until a new No 9 arrives in New York

Different kit, same smile.
Courtesy Seattle Sounders

New York City FC’s decision to trade Héber to Seattle Sounders in late December has become the subject of some second-guessing after just two MLS regular season matches.

The recently-departed Brazilian striker has gotten off to a flying start with his new club. He’s scored in both of Seattle’s opening MLS matches, and thus far leads all of MLS in shots and expected goals (xG).

NYCFC, meanwhile, have looked sluggish in attack while attempting to get square-peg wingers – Talles Magno and Thiago – to fit into a round striker-sized hole. NYCFC continue searching for internal or external answers at striker, while Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer laments the “horrible” lineup decisions he faces when Seattle’s first-choice forward, Raúl Ruidíaz, is again available for selection alongside Héber.

The initial knee-jerk reaction would be to declare NYCFC’s decision to part with Héber in exchange for up to $550,000 in allocation money a mistake. While he’s banging in the goals and helping Seattle again look like contenders for MLS Cup, NYCFC struggle to score and reportedly continue to scour the transfer market for a new No 9. Rendering a verdict on the trade this early, though, feels premature and ignores important context around the player, the playing styles of the teams involved in the trade, and the other roster-building decisions faced by NYCFC sporting director David Lee.

Let’s attempt to unpack all the various factors that should keep NYCFC fans from overreacting to Héber’s hot start in the Pacific Northwest.

The logic to the NYCFC side of the trade

Héber remains a tried-and-tested goal threat in MLS. The 31-year-old bounced back admirably from the major knee injury he suffered in September 2020. He made cameos at the tail end of NYCFC’s run to win 2021 MLS Cup, then signed a post-Cup-win contract extension that guaranteed him $914,000 in pay in 2022, and presumably a similar salary in 2023.

But Héber’s 2022 was mixed: He put together a few decent goal-scoring streaks, yet never convincingly looked like the right player to replace Taty Castellanos as the lone forward in NYCFC’s system. He got the first chance to claim the role after Taty left for Girona, but failed to do so, and bounced between the starting XI and bench for most of the post-Taty months of 2022.

When you combine his near-million-dollar salary, the fact that he’s not a perfect fit for what NYCFC wants from its striker, his age, and his proximity to a major knee injury, it becomes more understandable why NYCFC sporting director David Lee would accept Seattle’s offer. Héber’s individual attributes as a striker align neatly with the Sounders’ more direct attacking approach, and Seattle only needed to give up allocation money and assume the high salary commitment in order to secure experienced cover for Raúl Ruidíaz.

Following the trade, NYCFC would have been expected to replace Héber with a striker who is younger, a better system fit, and potentially is on a lower salary—but that brings us to...

The bigger issue: NYCFC’s continued failure to sign a No 9

Striker has been a position of need for NYCFC since it became clear Castellanos was Europe-bound. That need only grew larger with the Héber trade, and until a new player who is ready to contribute immediately at the MLS level as a No 9 arrives, every Héber highlight will raise questions about NYCFC’s roster decisions at striker.

The NYCFC striker search has moved at a glacial pace and has yet to bear any real fruit. Yes, former Stanford University and FC Köln II forward Gabe Segal joined in early January, but he’s been an unused substitute in both of NYCFC’s matches, and it seems NYCFC II will more likely to be his main source of minutes in 2023.

In fact, NYCFC seem to have a number of striker options on their reserve team. Segal could be joined at NYCFC II by recent recipient of a Honduras call-up John Denis, and MLS SuperDraft pick MD Myers reportedly also just signed a contract with the MLS NEXT Pro team. Yet none of these players appear to feature prominently in first-team plans for the 2023 season, at least not as of early March.

The international transfer market appears to be the avenue of choice as NYCFC look for their next No 9. The list of overseas striker targets recently linked with the club is long and ever-growing: Petar Ratkov and Žan Vipotnik, Szymon Włodarczyk, Thomas Henry, to name just a recent few.

Moving on from Héber may have made sense for NYCFC in a vacuum, but the logic of the decision erodes with every day that passes without sealing the deal for a new striker. The position needs to be addressed, but that urgency feels directly at odds with David Lee’s preferred approach to transfers.

Lee has not historically been one to make reactionary moves, nor one to feel any external pressure to make signings. He had to work through tons of changes to his roster this offseason, and somewhat creatively used the allocation money he received in exchange for Héber to acquire goalkeeper Matt Freese—a strategic gamble that could either turn out to be an overpay for a backup keeper who hardly plays, or that could prove wise if Freese eventually supplants Luis Barraza as the starter.

The “Primary” MLS transfer window remains open until April 24. The onus is now on David Lee to quiet all the doubting and chatter that has zeroed in on NYCFC’s striker position, including laments of what was lost with the Héber trade. Who Lee signs for the No 9 and when he signs them will go a long way towards dictating how the 2023 season plays out.