Heber - celebrating - first goal

The first hours in a new, foreign land was quite the culture shock for Heber.

Then a 23-year-old striker looking to make his way forward in soccer as his career began to stall, he found himself halfway across the world in Armenia, a country he'd never even heard of before top flight club Alashkert made an offer for his services. He arrived at the airport and it may as well have been another planet. 

After spending his entire life in Brazil, where he was no stranger to change after featuring for five different professional clubs, nothing could properly prepare him for the challenge ahead.

“I remember the first day in Armenia when I woke up," Heber told MLSsoccer.com last week. "I looked out the window and said: What the * am I doing here?”

Heber's unique career path from Brazil to NYCFC, via Armenia and Croatia - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/heber.jpg

Heber celebrating a hat trick in the Concacaf Champions League this February | USA Today Sports

It's been a unique career path for NYCFC's smiling, buoyant assassin. 

Heber began his career in Brazil, the chief exporter of professional soccer players across the globe. Given the abundance of talent and competition for places throughout the academies, breaking through isn't easy. Neither is staying in the first team. 

Nonetheless, Heber did break through with Figueirense in 2010, alongside current Liverpool and Brazil national team forward Roberto Firmino. 

“When I was in Brazil, my dream came true," Heber said. "If you ask kids in Brazil what they want to do when they grow up, they say footballer. This is the country of football. I remember how good I felt after my first professional game. It was one of the best days of my life.”

That day almost didn't happen. 

“It’s a funny story,” Heber said as he unraveled the anecdote. 

Heber was playing for the U-19 academy side at the time, he hadn't yet gotten to the reserve squad. He figured he was nowhere close to the first team. The reserve team head coach told him he wanted to put him on the bench for their next game, but Heber tried to decline. His academy team had a game on Saturday, while the second team played on Tuesday and he wouldn't have been able to play in both. The coach had to promise him he'd give him a few minutes off the bench to convince him to play. 

Unbeknownst to him, the club's first team head coach was in the stands. Heber scored off the bench, impressed the boss and was called up for the next first team game.

"I can't believe I told him I didn’t want to!" Heber said with a laugh. "Thank God it worked out and thanks to the coach for calling me.”

Heber's time with Figueirense proved to be a high point. He left the club in 2011, suffered a broken leg in 2012 and bounced around on loan for a few years. His options were limited by 2015, even in the vast depths of Brazilian soccer. So he took a chance.

“My agent called me to say he has one offer for me, to go to Armenia," Heber said. "I said okay, I’ll go. Then I asked: Where is Armenia?”

Heber didn't speak the language, leaning on Google translate to help him get by. He didn't even bring jeans which made his trip to the shops to buy a pair much more complicated than the average errand. 

Around the club, he had a few things to get used to. The coach smoked cigarettes at halftime, some players smoked after the game. He had to wash his own training kit, he saw snow for the first time that winter. It was all different.

“I didn’t know where Armenia was, I knew nothing about this country. But I went," Heber said. "Armenia is the beginning of everything. I’m here today in New York because of Armenia.”

Soccer was the easy part. Goals are the golden currency on every pitch in the world and Heber's pockets were deep in that regard. He found the net 20 times in his Armenian sojourn, including on his debut to accelerate his teammates' welcome. 

After that stellar season with Alashkert, Heber was set to return to Brazil to play for Joinville Esporte Club, who were in the third or fourth tier of Brazilian soccer. He doesn't remember because he didn't end up joining the club. Alashkert didn't send in his paperwork in time, the move fell through.

“I don’t know, maybe they were sad because I didn’t stay," Heber said. "But it ended up helping me a lot, because I went to Croatia.”

Heber's time in Armenia paved the way for a move to Croatian club Slaven Belupo, which elevated him to where he is today. One year with Belupo was plenty to convince fellow Croatian side HNK Rijeka to make a bid. Even after two highly successful seasons with Rejika, he came to NYCFC as an unknown.

In the unenviable position of having to fill the goalscoring load left behind by the legendary David Villa, Heber quickly made his name in New York. He fired 15 goals over 22 matches in his debut MLS season, helping lift NYCFC to a club-record finish and berth to the Concacaf Champions League. He's happier than he's ever been.

“This is the best time of my career," Heber said. "Since I got here, the team has helped me a lot. We made a great season, I scored many goals. ... If they want to sign me to a new contract until I end my career, I’d sign.”

The 28-year-old holds memories from his career close to him, even the lowpoints. He remembers the physical pain of overcoming a serious injury but more the anguish of his dream slipping away. He remembers feeling out of place in Armenia, he remembers the small dressing rooms that smelled like cigarettes. He remembers washing his own kit. 

All of that makes his successes at NYCFC even sweeter. 

“Almost every day I think about where I was and where I am," Heber said. "It makes me work hard not to go down again. It’s hard. When you’re down, no one wants you. Now, for sure, I give everything never to go there again.”