November 28, 2018, was the end of an era for New York City FC. It was on that day David Villa, the club’s first-ever signing, confirmed he would be leaving the club after his contract expired in late-December.
“I truly believe that David will be remembered as one of the best players to ever play in MLS,” Claudio Reyna. “He will forever be a legend amongst all of our wonderful supporters and everyone here at NYCFC wishes David nothing but the best in the remainder of his career. He will always be a part of NYCFC.”
The hole left by Villa was sizeable, and replacing his on-field production alone was a difficult task. By the time the season kicked off in March the club had secured Alexandru Mitrita as a Designated Player. Although the Romanian could play centrally, he was better suited to operating out wide left and driving inside on his right.
That meant there was a gap to be filled. In the early weeks of the season, Dome Torrent experimented with a trio of players in the role of a lone forward. While they worked to varying degrees, none felt quite right, and on March 21, the club announced the signing of Héber Araujo dos Santos.
The Brazilian was undoubtedly a left field signing and a consequence of City Football Group’s global scouting infrastructure. Heber spent the first five years of his career playing for five different teams in his homeland (including a spell with Roberto Firmino at Figueirense). 2015 brought with it a move to Europe, where his nomadic habit continued. He began in the Armenian Premier League with Alashkert, registering 16 goals and seven assists in 26 games. A year later, he joined NK Slaven Belupo in Croatia, and 12 months after that he moved to HNK Rijeka where he notched 26 goals and 12 assists in 38 league appearances.
“He has a really good nose for the goal and can score in many different ways. We’re looking forward to having Héber join the team. He’s going to bring a new element to our attack that is going the be exciting.”
While goals and assists will always be a key metric to judge a forward, Heber has offered his team much more than that in a role somewhat reminiscent of his one-time teammate Firmino.
When Heber first moved to Croatia his coach at Slaven Belupo, Željko Kopić, changed his position from a central striker to an inverted left-winger.
That encouraged him to involve himself in build-up play, and also cultivated a versatility that has been key for NYCFC.
Heber has played the majority of his games for NYCFC as the lone forward, and he is more than comfortable as the team’s number 9, attacking space in behind and applying the finishing touch to attacks. His versatility, however, allows him to come deep and link up the play as well as drift wide and drag defenders with him. That, in turn, creates space for teammates to thrive in central areas.
The presence of a versatile forward has been beneficial for NYCFC, with Heber leading the team in goals, and third for key passes per 90 (minimum of 500 minutes). It is telling that only one of Mitrita’s five league goals arrived before Heber’s introduction to the starting XI, and the Brazilian’s fine form has paralleled that of NYCFC’s, with Dome Torrent finding the missing piece in attack.
“You can imagine how many times I asked the question about him playing as a No. 9 and if he was able to play that role,” Reyna told the Athletic recently. “Everybody said he’s a 9, he’s only playing on the wing because the previous team had brought in another forward, but he’s a 9, he wants to play as a 9. But you see the quality on video, you see his movement, and then you feel comfortable.”
Now four points from the top of the Eastern Conference with four games in hand, NYCFC is at a delicate point in the season. Things are, however, far more positive than the early weeks of the campaign, before Heber arrived. The Brazilian has given his team a focal point with which to work and in turn crystallised Dome Torrent’s style of play.
Now settled in New York, Heber has found the perfect home for his talents, and in return fans of NYCFC have gained a new player to cheer and dampen the pain of losing the iconic Villa.