A funereal pall descended on Red Bull Arena in the late stages of Wednesday’s match between New York City FC and Toronto FC as a weeping Heber was carted off the pitch in obvious physical and emotional anguish with what turned out to be a torn ACL for the Brazilian striker. And his team’s shock and dismay at the latest setback in an arduous season may linger for quite some time to come.
Heber had only scored one goal in MLS play this year as the Cityzens’ attack sputters in year one under Ronny Deila; don’t be fooled, though. His loss is a massive blow to the side that topped the Eastern Conference standings in 2019 and finished second in the Supporters’ Shield race, one that approaches the devastation Atlanta United suffered when their spearhead Josef Martinez got a similar diagnosis back in March.
Yes, ample quality still remains on NYCFC’s roster. But Heber was the capstone, the final touch, the clinical finisher that converted all their good buildup work into end product, to the tune of 15 goals and four assists in 22 league appearances last season.
In fact he proved so influential to the collective that Deila’s predecessor Dome Torrent pointed to him as a key factor in the frustrations that led to his departure over the winter, asserting, “I have no doubt that having a player like Heber from the beginning we would be talking about the chance of winning the Supporters' Shield. I’m convinced of that,” and lamenting how long it took to sign him and bring him into the fold after the loss of foundational Designated Player David Villa.
As much or more than any personal failings, Heber’s struggles this year are a reflection of City’s wider difficulties in the final third. After topping the East in scoring last season with 63 goals, an average of 1.95 per game, NYCFC have tallied just 10 in 13 thus far in 2020. Data mined by MLSsoccer.com’s Ben Baer shows their expected goals per games played has dipped from 1.74 to 1.26 year over year, while they are the second-worst team in MLS in terms of goals minus expected goals at -6.33.
In short, that means that they’re creating fewer chances than before, and finishing them less often, even if they’ve been unlucky this season compared to their statistical overperformance in front of goal in 2019. Heber’s xG of 3.15, while not an impressive number by any means, leads the team, followed by Taty Castellanos at 2.3.
That blunt edge up top is a key factor in NYCFC’s slip into midtable mediocrity, and things look grimmer when factoring in the current absence of injury-plagued No. 10 Maxi Moralez in addition to Heber being lost for the rest of the year.
In response, Deila may need to shuffle his tactical deck yet again. Moves could yet be made in the transfer window, especially given the heft of the City Football Group’s global scouting and evaluation network. Castellanos, Alex Mitrita or Ismael Tajouri-Shradi might find it within themselves to step up and shoulder more of the scoring load.
Or perhaps some combination of all of the above will be necessary to make NYC – who are 5-6-2 at the time of writing – a more fearsome proposition than they are at present.