ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — He brings joga bonito to the Bronx, lighting up Yankee Stadium with every touch on the ball, and brings a positive energy to the New York City FC locker room.
Heber had never been to the United States, let alone New York City, before signing with the club in March. But he’s taken MLS by storm, helping the Cityzens overcome a slow start en route to becoming one of the hottest teams in the league.
There’s certainly a wealth of legendary Brazilian players for kids growing up in Brazil to worship throughout history, from Pele to Zico to Romario to Ronaldinho and Neymar.
But there was just one for Heber growing up playing on the streets of Colorado de Oeste. It’s why he wears the No. 9 on his back.
“For me, the best one in the world — Ronaldo, No. 9. El Fenomeno,” Heber told MLSsoccer.com. “In Brazil, if you ask one kid what do you want to do when you grow up, for sure they want to be a soccer player. When I was a kid, the Brazil national team had very good players — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo. Ronaldo for me was amazing for what he does on the pitch. He’s fast, he has skill, he shoots with both legs and he was my idol.”
Heber’s favorite team growing up was Palmeiras. Although he never got a chance to root on the legendary Verdão at Allianz Parque in São Paulo, he played against them in 2011 when he was with Figueirense in Brazil’s Serie A.
“I changed one jersey for me,” Heber said. “I also brought one to my brother.”
Futbol, just to watch
While Heber has enjoyed a nine-year professional career where he’s scored nearly 70 goals in three different countries, the 27-year-old’s playing ability wasn’t shared among his two older brothers and two older sisters.
Or anyone else in his extended family, for that matter.
“They don’t know how to kick one ball. My family doesn’t know how to kick one ball, my cousin, no one,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I’m born with this, maybe, because in my family, no one played football. We liked to watch, but they don’t like to play.”
His mother is especially thrilled to watch Heber play now that he’s in MLS. His matches in Croatia weren’t featured in Brazil, but some MLS games are, and she’s been able to watch three NYCFC matches. Coincidentally, they were the three games he’s scored in.
She also has the MLS App, which gives her notifications when NYCFC play and win — and of course, when Heber does well.
“They are very happy,” he said of his family. “When the game finishes, I already have one message from her and she tells me, ‘Oh you won, or you scored.’”
Majoring in soccer
While his siblings never nutmegged anyone, Heber said he had the same routine virtually every day of his childhood.
“When I was a kid, I woke up at six in the morning, went to school, I came back at 11 or 12, eat and go to the street and play football until 6 pm. I come back home, dinner, sleep and the next day the same,” Heber said. “In Brazil, everywhere you go you have the pitch to play. When you don’t have the pitch, in the street you put down your shoes and this is the goals and we play there.”
The bad news for Heber is that his parents don’t like to travel, so it’s unlikely they’ll get to see him play in person any time soon. The good is when Heber returns to Brazil, as he did in December, his mother gets into the kitchen to welcome him home.
“Rice, beans, French fries and [steak]. My first food in Brazil is this always,” Heber said. “My mom has the best food in the world.”
Being in New York, Heber has no shortage of options for a taste of Brazil. It doesn’t quite measure up to mom’s cooking, but he’s not complaining about getting to order barbeque picanha for delivery.
There’s an app for that, too.
Kreilach: The advisor, the legend
Heber didn’t get a chance to play with Kreilach — he left Rijeka, where he wore the captain’s armband, the year before Heber joined from Slaven Belupo — but he still forged a relationship with the RSL midfielder that continues to this day.
“In my last game, he was in the stadium and we talked a little bit,” Heber said. “After we had dinner with the team and he came also because he’s a legend at Rijeka. I met him and after when I get this offer, the director of Rijeka gave me his number and we talked.”
Heber and Kreilach continue to keep in touch, often commenting on each other’s Instagram posts. He can’t wait until they can meet up on the field when Salt Lake host NYCFC on Aug. 3.
“I told him, ‘hey, keep your jersey for me, please,” Heber said.
Saving his best for last
Of Heber’s 67 career goals, he has one clear favorite. It was his last one for Rijeka and second in the second leg of the Croatian Cup quarterfinals, won by Rijeka 4-2 on aggregate.
He had already scored the equalizing goal in the first leg and a headed goal to put his squad in front early in the second leg, but his 77th-minute strike was a thing of beauty.
He rounded a defender at midfield with his first touch and ran into space, playing a quick one-two with a teammate before cutting inside another defender and sending his shot in off the far post.
It was important, it had flair and it was celebrated accordingly.
“It was amazing for me, the best one in my career,” Heber said. “I think I have everything in this goal — good skill, dribbling, running with the ball and a good shot.”
City of Angels tops the list
Heber is experiencing America, well North America, for the first time, so every road trip is a fresh view of a new city. It’s early, but he’s got a clear favorite so far.
“Los Angeles is very nice, huh? In Brazil, everyone speaks about Los Angeles because of Hollywood and Beverly Hills,” Heber said of his favorite road MLS city. “I think until now, it’s Los Angeles.”
Just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
Speaking of Hollywood, Heber’s first impression of New York City also came from the movies, specifically from Marvel Studios Spider-Man, although its unclear if Heber has made it to Queens yet.
“They show the city, Times Square, the lights,” he said. “I think next month my friends will come and I will go with them to see the city.”
Thankfully for Heber, who has yet to see any of the sights in his new hometown because of the rigors of the MLS regular season, he doesn’t have to be the tour guide.
“My Brazilian friend has been here four times, so he will show me around and tell me the good restaurants to go to,” Heber said.
Good first impression
NYCFC coach Dome Torrent made no secret of his desire for a No. 9, especially when David Villa left to play in Japan. A sizable wish list was created by sporting director Claudio Reyna, technical director David Lee and director of scouting Khaled El-Ahmad.
It was an impressive list of forwards, among them four to six Brazilians. But Heber stood out in the 10 matches Torrent watched.
“My feeling was he had a lot of qualities for us — he can keep the ball, he’s a fast player even when he plays on the left side, he’s a strong header [of the ball],” Torrent said. “I like this player and I said to Claudio he’s one of the best players for us if we’re able to sign.”
Torrent reached out to his Croatian contacts to see if Heber could play as a No. 9. When the answer was yes, Torrent knew the club had the player they were desperate to sign.
Heber made an immediate impact on the field with two goals and two assists in his first three starts — two wins and a draw. But he’s as important off the field.
“He’s amazing. The mood right now in the locker room is much better and one of the reasons why is because Heber is there,” Torrent said. “He’s a Brazilian player and you know sometimes, I don’t know, the feeling of this player is amazing in training because everybody loves him. Not just because he’s a top player for us, it’s because it’s about right now he’s happy every single day, every single minute he smiles and smiles. He conveys that.”
It reminds Torrent of the impact another Brazilian made on a team he coached.
“I remember when Ronaldinho arrived in Barcelona, it was the same,” Torrent said. “When he arrived here, I don’t know, just in one week, everybody liked this guy. … The mood is much better.”