If you were to go around and take a poll of every Seattle Sounders reply guy on Twitter, they would mostly tell you that the No. 1 need for the Seattle Sounders this offseason was some forward depth.
This is understandable. Raúl Ruidíaz is another year older and coming back from a campaign where he was sidelined a great deal. Seattle’s backup options were less than prolific during a crucial stage of the season that ultimately saw them fall short of a postseason berth for the first time in the franchise’s MLS history.
It doesn’t seem necessary to go through and diagnose every single thing that went wrong during 2022, but one of the notable things was that the Sounders were having a really difficult time scoring goals, particularly from open play.
Open Play Shot/xG/Goals by Season:
It wasn’t great! No doubt, a major contributing factor in this was the absence of DP striker Ruidiaz. His 1,415 minutes logged last season was the lowest full season since his arrival. In his stead, Seattle employed one of Jordan Morris, Will Bruin, or Fredy Montero. Morris was pretty good deputizing, but you ideally want him to be playing in his preferred position out wide. Bruin struggled to be as productive as he has been in the past, and while Montero was probably the better of the three, he didn’t exactly sparkle either.
Héber, on the other hand, had his best season since his debut campaign.
I’m going to name some players now. Let’s guess what they have in common.
You would be right if you guessed any or all of the following things:
1.) These are all players that Seattle fans would have lost their minds if they acquired.
2.) These are big fancy names, some of the best goalscorers in the league, and many were finalists or winners of end-of-season awards.
3.) All of them had less non-penalty goals per 96 minutes in 2022 than Héber Araujo dos Santos. His 0.57 non-penalty goals per 96 minutes also compares well to MLS darlings Jesus Ferreira (0.59) and Brandon Vasquez (0.58).
Now, that’s good, but let’s scroll back up a bit and look at that table again, you can see that it isn’t all roses and candy. There are a couple of flags and yeah, they’re reddish and we’ll get into that here in a second, but let’s just take a look at his production from last season compared to Seattle’s forward corps:
So while, that electric forward that took MLS by storm in 2019 and was (wrongly imo) denied a Newcomer of the Year award by someone who is well known as a PRETTY GOOD player (Carles Gil), may not likely be the Héber that we’re going to get here in the Emerald City, that 2022 Héber would still be a very welcome addition.
I asked Justin Egan of the excellent NYCFC blog “The Outfield” what Seattle was getting with this 2022 version of Heber:
“The big thing that Seattle is gaining is one of the best locker room guys in MLS. When Taty overtook him on the depth chart, Héber was one of his biggest supporters. He’s got a big smile, a big heart, and is almost annoyingly too positive. His mentorship of NYCFC”s young Brazilian players will be missed by NYCFC this season. With Cristian Roldan already on the roster, Seattle might be trying to create a vibe vortex. He’s also bald and completely into it. From a soccer perspective, he is an intelligent striker that excelled in NYCFC’s system because of his ability to make dangerous attacking runs inside the box when the ball got into the optimal assist zone. He can score with either foot and his head, and permanently endeared himself to NYCFC fans because he back-heel nutmegged Luis Robles to win a Hudson River Derby. If there are pieces around him, he will find ways to create high-quality chances.”
Well, what can you say? We do love our vibes guys here in Seattle, and hey, we happen to have a young Brazilian player that could possibly benefit from some of this mentorship!
Now, you’re no doubt saying: OK that all sounds dope, but you said something about red flags? And, yeah … like most deals, it isn’t without an element of risk. The people I’ve spoken with that are far more familiar with the nuances of NYCFC soccer have said almost entirely positive things about him but also warned that his physicality still hasn’t recovered after a nasty ACL tear in 2020. I’m not able to find any actual record of his injury history prior to his MLS move, so maybe no news is good news on that front, or I’m just bad at doing Googles.
I asked Justin Egan about post-injury Heber:
“Anyone that follows Seattle knows a thing or two about torn ACLs. It’s really a crapshoot how much a player is able to recover. The biggest thing that Héber lost post-injury was not his goal-scoring but his on-the-ball play. He used to be able to drop in the midfield and make some great combination plays with teammates. This year, there were a lot more errant passes and heavy touches resulting in turnovers. This also made him a lot easier to shut down because the lack of on-the-ball play also made him completely disappear from games when he did not receive service inside the box. I think the other concern with Héber is that he is not a 90-minute player anymore. He only went a full 90 four times during the regular season, so if Ruidíaz goes down for an extended period of time like last season, he is not a complete replacement. But if his role is to primarily come off the bench or start and play 60 minutes, and score some goals then Seattle will be able to get decent production out of him.”
And, look, he’s not wrong.
Here’s Heber’s 2019 heat map:
And… Heber’s 2022 heat map:
Now, whether this is all down to the loss of some mobility and strength as a result of his ACL, or just a system change in NYCFC, I can’t rightly say, but this along with the eyewitness testimony of my NYCFC friends, does lead me to believe there’s some truth to this idea.
He’s also not wrong about Héber not carrying a large minute load last season, either. Will another year of recovery under his belt after an ACL tear show some more progress to getting back to his 2019 levels of fitness? We’re just going to have to see. I’m not a doctor of any sort, but we have seen examples of players that need more than just a year to get back to where they were following an ACL tear. There’s not enough here that I’m optimistic that we’ll see Héber be able to handle a full season load of 90-minute outings, but I’m also not willing to stick a fork in the guy either, and even if he’s only at these 2022 levels of fitness, he’s more than capable as a backup striking option.
My other concern is tactical. Ruidíaz was forced to drop deep a lot more often last year than he was in previous seasons. Like many things that did not go according to plan last year, this was likely due to the absence of João Paulo. Will JP be back to his full self this season? It remains to be seen, but I’m pretty confident that if we want to see the best from Héber, he’s going to need to get good service of the type that Seattle were not good at providing last year. No team in the league last season played more crosses than Seattle. This would be fine, but Seattle also generated the eighth worst xA off of crosses as well. They crossed a lot, and it was not effective.
The good news is that at 5-foot-11, Héber towers over Ruidíaz (5-foot-7) and Fredy Montero (5-foot-9). The bad news is that 5-foot-11 is still not very tall.
The good news is that Héber produced double the amount of headed shots last season than Ruidíaz did. The bad news is that the number he doubled was 0.1 headed shots per game. With this trio of striking options, Seattle would do very well to not be the highest crossing team in Major League Soccer again.
Isn’t he too old?
Any time an MLS team acquires a player of at least 30 years old, people start sharpening their knives, and I get it. Conventional soccer wisdom has long held that 27-29 is the peak age for players and the second you’re a day older than 30, you’re basically 82 years old.
Add to this, the insecurity of being perceived as a “retirement league” and how much talking head types get all excited about “play your kids” and “this is a YOUNG team”, and it’s pretty easy to see why the average fan is concerned about this.
The fact of the matter is that being a 31-year-old soccer player in 2022 isn’t the same thing as being a 31-year-old soccer player 20 years ago, and more than that, no two players are the same when it comes to age and decline. Acquiring a 31-year-old player in and of itself is not particularly concerning to me.
That being said, Seattle’s attacking core is on the older side, and Héber would actually be the youngest forward on the roster. It’s reasonable to be concerned about this, but that concern is an entirely different article, and isn’t really Héber’s fault.
What this does seem to indicate is that Seattle aren’t looking at their roster from last season and thinking it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Héber probably isn’t going to be a major part of the team over the next 5-6 years, but I think this obviously wasn’t a signing with “long-term” ambitions.
Isn’t he too expensive?
Giving up $400k GAM plus a potential $150k more in add-ons seems pretty hefty. But is it? I can’t speak to what the performance-based add-ons are in this deal, but broadly speaking, those are the sorts of things you’re usually happy to pay for because it means the player is doing good.
To judge this transaction on its own is kind is difficult, so let’s look at some other transactions this offseason:
- Kevin Cabral cost Colorado around $1 million in GAM and occupies a Designated Player spot
- Artur cost Houston $300k + $50k in add-ons.
- Jacob Shaffelberg cost Nashville $300k + $50k in add-ons.
- Tim Parker cost St. Louis $500k
- Fafa Picault cost Nashville 100k + 150k in add-ons.
I could keep going but I think you get it. $400k-$550k is probably the most I would have paid for Héber, and that’s probably why NYCFC were charging that amount. Notably, the Sounders have also acquired $375k in GAM this offseason in other trades, so this is basically a wash. I’m not particularly concerned about the cost.
When it comes to salary stuff, I’m hesitant to comment outside of generic “YOU PAID HOW MUCH?” banter at teams I don’t like because, frankly, there is no way I can comment intelligently on it without a ton of knowledge that I just don’t have access to. Without looking at the balance sheet, potential future moves, future changes to the roster rules, and whatever byzantine MLS roster mechanisms that allow salaries to be bought down or not etc., Héber’s salary is just one part of a very big puzzle and I’m not allowed to even look at the picture on the box. So I’ll just say that it seems high but...
"Heber's salary is too much for a backup striker"— Mark Kastner (@mkstnr) December 29, 2022
Nashville, both LA teams, DC United, Vancouver, Portland, Atlanta, TFC, Orlando, and SKC all paid about the same salary or more for a "backup" last season. None of which scored more goals than Heber in 2022.
Obviously, I wouldn’t be mad if it was lower, but I’m fine with it.
But why didn’t we go out and get ___?
I think the player most of us were dreaming of was one of those young international signings acquired for a bargain price that grows into a key component of several back-to-back treble-winning teams before ultimately being sold to the Premier League for $200m. That would have been nice!
The answer to the question “Why didn’t we just go out and get ______?” is usually because we couldn’t for one of a million different reasons, or we didn’t want to for one of a million different reasons, almost none of which we’ll ever be privy to.
Héber will never be able to live up to a made-up hypothetical signing that worked out perfectly in my fan-fiction or yours, but let’s at least see how he does and judge him on his own merits.
You wrote a really long article again, can you just sum up whether or not this was a good acquisition?
I’m very optimistic. We need goals from someone not named Raúl Ruidíaz, and Héber, even post-injury can score goals. I’m a bit concerned that he won’t be able to be a consistent 90-minute guy if something happens to Ruidíaz again, but I think you sort of have to hope that Ruidíaz will stay healthy no matter who is behind him.
The reported cost in GAM seems reasonable to me given what’s been flying around the league this year. Héber’s contract is a good bit pricier than Will Bruin’s was, but as much as I love Will Bruin, Héber is a better player. Does the salary concern me at all? Sure. It seems kind of high for a backup/spot-starting striker, but MLS math is so complicated and byzantine with rules and buydowns and whatever else, that I just have to hope and trust that the front office knows what they’re doing with regards to the cap situation.
At 31, Heber is hardly nearing the retirement home, but he’s not exactly “one for the future” either. He improves the roster NOW, and I think that’s what the front office was looking to do. Rightly or wrongly, the organization believes this team is capable of competing for big prizes still with this group of players. With a Club World Cup coming followed by an unreasonably busy league calendar that’s getting more and more competitive every season, Seattle needs to address the holes in their roster quickly.
This addresses one of the biggest ones with a proven MLS goalscorer that is willing to accept a less-than-leading role on a team, and do so with a smile. By all accounts, at the very least, Seattle have acquired another veteran with fan-favorite potential that is a great addition to the locker room and can help mentor younger players.
This will likely be the first transaction that Craig Waibel will be judged on, and I hope for his sake and ours that it will be judged favorably. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with this or any acquisition. However, if Heber is able to replicate his form from last season, this will have been a very good deal. If he’s able to get back closer to his 2019 levels of production? This will have been an absolute steal.