As the opening week of Concacaf Champions League winds to a close, I’m left wondering if there's a single more valuable piece in MLS than a clinical No. 9.
Heber arrived at New York City FC late last year (three weeks into the season) and unheralded coming from Croatian side Rijeka. Then-coach Dome Torrent called him “our ninth option” on the transfer market and later it turned out that his frustrations with the signing's timing were factors in his eventual departure.
The Brazilian then went and reeled off 15 goals in 22 matches (18 starts), proving himself a worthy successor to David Villa as the Cityzens powered to the top of the Eastern Conference with their best regular season ever. That’s a goals-per-90-minutes rate of 0.86, a lofty number only bettered by Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among the league’s top scorers.
Surely 2020 will produce some sort of return towards the mean, right? Not if Thursday night’s hat trick vs. AD San Carlos in Costa Rica is any indication.
When considering NYCFC’s away win, it’s understandably tempting to dwell on the slackening of defensive focus that saw the visitors leak two late goals as a 4-1 lead turned into a 5-3 win. Those breakdowns will cost them dearly against higher-caliber opposition in later rounds.
But the simple fact that NYCFC's win can be discussed in such terms is down to Heber, or more specifically the unique role he plays for his side.
While the happy-go-lucky Brazilian doesn’t turn as many heads as Villa, he’s been the perfect replacement for El Guaje because of his clever movement and instincts in front of goal. He might even prove to be a dark-horse contender for this season’s Golden Boot award.
Against San Carlos, he left center backs Fernando Brenes and Lucas Meza chasing shadows and begging for offside flags that never came, as he repeatedly ghosted off their back shoulders and exploited their line. And Heber's teammates know where to place the service he feasts on, especially those probing low crosses to the near post.
NYCFC have constructed one of the most balanced rosters in MLS, and their insistence on a methodical possession style for most of their existence has given them a clear identity that's easy to spot. However, all of that can quickly dissolve into meaningless moralizing without a cutting edge at the tip of the spear.
Just ask LAFC, who are one of the most potent attacking forces the league has ever seen, yet become something tamer when they have to field Carlos Vela – as audaciously good as he is – as a No. 9 instead of his usual spot along the right channel. With Adama Diomande (foot) out injured, they were forced into that choice again vs. Leon on Tuesday, and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that they got blanked 2-0 in Mexico.
If you don’t know Heber yet, it’s time to get acquainted. Rest assured that NYCFC’s potential opponents in the latter rounds of CCL will be doing exactly that in the weeks ahead.