By Mike Rice.
Is a New York City tale being played out on the northwest coast in the state of Washington? That’s where former NYCFC striker Héber is grabbing headlines after being traded to Seattle Sounders.
Seattle recognised a need for quality alongside star striker Raul Ruidíaz who suffered with injuries last season, and Héber has started the new campaign in electric form. He is matching his new team who are showing the levels of performance associated with a top MLS side.
He has two goals in his first two starts for the side, and it could well be more. Hebér has, according to mlssoccer.com, the most ‘On Target Scoring Attempts’ in the league with seven — one more than Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Thommy.
Early days, but Héber has the most shots and highest xG in MLS so far this season from his 150 mins played for Seattle #Sounders, after moving from #NYCFC. pic.twitter.com/xiBp67UUey
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) March 7, 2023
As Seattle gets off to this incredible start, questions will automatically be raised in New York, with Hebér’s former side looking very light in the center-forward position, having managed just one goal in their opening two games.
After losing Valentin “Taty” Castellanos last summer when he moved to Girona in Spain, no striker signing was made. In the offseason leading into the 2023 campaign with Héber the next to go, again, no striker signing was made.
Taty has gone, Héber has gone, leaving the position up for grabs. Several other key players have also departed for free — Sean Johnson and Alex Callens — which has suggested that this season could be one of rebuilding for the 2021 MLS Cup champions.
Let’s focus on the attack though. In the build-up to the season, Talles Magno was considered to be the player to be moved into the center-forward role. This was experimented with towards the end of 2022 and received mixed reviews.
Talles Magno and Héber are very different players and while we may wonder if NYCFC are regretting the sale of their experienced Brazilian striker, his success could well be due to the different style of play between the two sides, and maybe the opposition they have played.
Brian Schmetzer has got his forward line operating at the levels which have seen them rightly praised so many times before. Héber is also the only new addition and has a focused role as a penalty box striker in this system.
With Albert Rusnak playing alongside João Paulo in the centre of midfield, his attacking instincts add to a fluid three of Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, and Nicolas Lodeiro.
They attack directly, using the wide areas and looking to create overloads to draw defenders out and cross for runners into the box, and Héber is benefitting greatly from this regular delivery.
Nick Cushing has a different system from Seattle. One of intricate build-up play in congested areas, meant to provide space for wide players coming inside in the final third.
While Seattle’s wingers play quite frequently using the width of the pitch, the two wide forwards in NYCFC’s system look to combine in the middle of the pitch and find ways of getting into shooting opportunities.
The center forward in this system is someone who not only finds space in tight areas for themselves but is one who plays a heavy role in the link-up play.
In Héber’s opening two games this season he has made 41 passes, per mlssoccer.com, 34 of which were successful, but only 4.9% of these passes have gone forwards. 58.5% have gone back into the midfield where, in Rusnak and João Paulo, Seattle have players who can move the ball wide or play through to runners.
NYCFC want their striker to do more. Talles Magno has played 32.2% of his 43 successful passes forwards. He can find positions to receive and move the ball forward into dangerous areas which Héber is not accustomed to doing.
The rotations that are forming with the forward line are again something which doesn’t suit Héber’s style of play.
NYCFC do not use a penalty box striker — their opportunities are born out of rotations, interchangeable movements to disrupt defenders, and attackers being difficult to tie down. NYCFC need a complete striker, one that is good on the ball, can link play as well as get in behind defences.
With the return of Santiago Rodriguez, they will add more quality into the No.10 role — a player who can move across the line and find space as well as having quality on the ball to find teammates. This may provide a more clinical and dangerous attack than what we have seen from their opening two games.
Should NYCFC regret letting Héber go?
While goals are on the stat sheet it can be easy to think “what if…” but with two very different styles of play, there is no guarantee Héber would have scored for NYCFC or made them better in the final third.
Talles Magno isn’t the problem and is a player with excellent quality and potential, but arguably that quality is best used in a wide area on the left rather than as a center forward.
The real question for NYCFC has been the same for nearly a year now: How will they replace Taty Castellanos? It remains unanswered