New York City FC striker Héber understandably felt his nerves when Ronny Deila called his name against FC Dallas on Tuesday night.
It was 357 days since he last entered as a substitute against Toronto FC on the same Red Bull Arena pitch, only to tear the ACL in his right knee in the game’s closing minutes. That injury, and his journey to recover from it, lingered on the Brazilian’s mind as he entered his first match of 2021, but only for so long.
"After I come in, I touched the first ball," said Héber, exhaling deeply, "the world go away from my shoulders."
The striker’s return certainly is a boost for an NYCFC side that isn’t breathing easy. With two months to play in the regular season, the club sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, yet only three points separate NYCFC (10-5-8, 35 points) from eighth-place Inter Miami CF, currently just outside the playoffs in this season’s format. NYCFC aims for its first road win since May when it visits FC Cincinnati on Saturday, having won just twice in its last eight matches overall.
Héber, who led NYCFC in 2019 with 15 goals, can make his biggest contributions as the finisher the club's lacked for large stretches of the season. NYCFC has created enough chances with relative ease in 2021, leading the league in expected goals, only to struggle with the final product in close games. According to FBRef.com, the club has won the expected goals battle in all but three of its 23 matches, but has just 10 wins to show for it.
The 30-year-old had to watch that play out from afar, not allowing the inconsistency up front to rush his rehabilitation.
"For sure our team creates a lot of chances. From outside of the lines, it’s easy when I’m upstairs. It’s like I’m [Brazilian great Ronaldo], it’s too easy because I can see the whole pitch. But when you’re inside, it’s one second," Héber said. "But I don’t put pressure on myself, and nobody from the club put pressure on myself. It was the opposite. They always say, ‘Take your time, don’t risk.’ Since I arrived I’ve always said that I only need to keep working, don’t put pressure on myself if I score or not, because if you do the right things and be focused during the game, the chances will come and you’ll be ready to score."
The prudent approach to Héber’s recovery won’t end after Tuesday’s 15-minute cameo.
"We have to train and play him into the shape he was before," Deila said. "He looks sharp and good, but he has to go through some stretch with difficulty to get back to the top, top level."
Deila may be able to afford taking his time with Héber as his squad is a bit more crowded now than it was a year ago following signings of several young attacking talents, including Héber’s countrymen Talles Magno and Thiago Andrade. But even if Héber remains a bit player in the season’s stretch run, Deila believes his impact will be felt.
"He’s bringing a lot of energy into the dressing room. He’s a positive guy. He has a lot of experience, he has quality, so he will bring things on and off the pitch," Deila said. "Again, it’s important to understand it takes time with him. It’s not like he’s going to go in and be as he was before. But just having him on the training pitch raised the level in training."