NEW YORK — November 28, 2018.
On this date, the legend of the New York City Football Club, David Villa, announced he would be departing the Bronx – eventually joining his former Barcelona teammate, Andres Iniesta, in Japan.
From that moment, discourse has centered on the position of center forward at NYCFC – what to do about a striker?
During preseason, City head coach Dome Torrent was candid saying, “Everybody knows we need a striker.”
Then New York City acquired Brazilian forward Héber from Croatian side HNK Rijeka — as reported by Pro Soccer USA on Wednesday — the need for a strong No. 9 was satisfied for the club and its supporters.
Or was it?
In his 17 matches in the 2018-19 campaign at Rijeka, 27-year-old Héber played on the left side in a three-front attack.
According to transfer-tracking website transfermkt, Héber was positioned as the left wing in 35 of his 37 matches at Rijeka and had 24 goals and 10 assists. In his pair of matches as a center forward – nary a goal or assist.
The deputy sporting director of Rijeka, Ivan Mance, told Pro Soccer USA there should be no concern among the City supporters.
“He is a striker,” Mance said. “In the league he’s been mostly on the wing, but we brought him in originally as a striker. Before he came to Rijeka he never played any other position than striker.”
Prior to his arrival at Rijeka, a scenic Croatian port city on the Mediterranean Sea, Héber was scintillating in the Armenian top tier with Alashkert. He earned the league’s Golden Boot with 16 goals in 26 matches – all as a striker.
“I asked my colleagues in Croatia why he played on the left side this year,” Torrent said after NYCFC training Thursday. “The reason, they said, is that they signed another player who is like a 9. So, (Héber) can play as an 11 as well, but his position definitely is a striker.”
NYCFC’s front-runners improved their level of play over the first three matches of the regular year, but the paucity of goals was alarming. Of the four goals tallied in three draws, only one came from a member of the forward line – newest designated player Alexandru Mitriță.
New York City needed a goal scorer, and the evaluation supplied by Mance, who is also Rijeka’s head of scouting, suggests Héber could be prolific in MLS.
“He’s not a classic No. 9 like Ibrahimovic or somebody like that, but he has a sense for his teammates, for good technique and amazing finishing,” Mance said. “I’ve never seen finishing like Héber. And we had Andrej Kramarić, who is now the best scorer of Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga – Heber has better finishing than he had.”
Kramarić, who played at Rijeka from 2013-15, has four goals in his last three Bundesliga matches this season. At one point last year, the Croatian international finished in nine consecutive games for Hoffenheim.
Although the 5-foot-11 Héber can play as a target with his back to the goal, Mance indicated that his strength as a striker lies in other areas of the game.
“He is better finding free spaces and attacking the first post,” Mance said. “He can play passes behind the defense and he can turn with his back to goal.”
Is there a global comparison to be made?
“Maybe like a (Luis) Suarez or someone like that,” Mance said. “He’s born for this – the talent is amazing. Left foot, right foot, headers. It’s crazy, he shoots with his head stronger than with his feet – it’s amazing.”
Héber scored on a thunderous header in UEFA Champions League qualifying last summer against Greek champion Olympiacos – the opening goal in an eventual 2-1 defeat.
Mance provided assurances that the City transfer who began his career with his hometown club, Figueirense, also scores high on the character scale.
“He’s got great character,” Mance said. “He’s Brazilian, but he’s like a German – making so many individual trainings and living like a professional without going to disco bars or the nightlife. He’s really a player you like to have on the team and his teammates love him. He’s a good guy.”
Although he has not been capped for the Brazilian National Team, Mance was adamant that Héber has elite quality while coming from a difficult environment.
“It’s not that easy, there are so many players,” Mance said. “When I’m scouting, I’m also watching 3rd division there, where you can find really good players that can be worth 4 million Euros. They were just born to play football. “
Mance said that if Héber had transferred in the emergent portions of his career, he would have been a strong candidate to be a member of the World Cup finalists.
“If he came earlier to Croatia maybe at 18 or 19, he’d probably get a passport and he’d have the quality to play for the Croatia National Team,” Mance said. “And that’s important because Croatia National Team is one of the best in the world.”
Caps or no caps, the New York City manager has procured what may be the final piece to the MLS Cup puzzle – the “new striker.”
“He’s a 9 for us,” Torrent said. “Sometimes the players can also play as an 11 (left wing). For example, Luis Suarez when he was at Ajax. No, it’s good news for us. We signed this player as a striker. His position definitely is a striker.”
“Maybe he will need one, two or three months to adapt,” Mance said. “But maybe not. He speaks English completely so he can speak to everybody. That should help. I think they made a really, really good deal with him.”