Fresh off winning the Bronze Ball at the Under-20 World Cup, the Venezuelan midfielder is enjoying a breakout 2017 with New York City FC
NEW YORK — Maybe Yangel Herrera would have been an excellent baseball player. It isn’t hard to imagine it given what an impressive athlete he is and Venezuela’s track record for producing major leaguers. It’s the dream Herrera’s parents may have envisioned when they initially tried coaxing their young son to pick up a bat rather than kick a soccer ball.
Herrera had other ideas, and felt something different when he played soccer. It felt like the sport for him from an early age, and given how far he has already come in his burgeoning career, it’s safe to say his instincts were correct.
“I think when someone is born to do something, they do it,” Herrera said of the fateful choice that never really felt like a decision for him. Anyone who has had a chance to watch the young Venezuelan midfielder can attest that he looks very much like someone who chose the right sport.
The 19-year-old is fresh off a Bronze Ball-winning performance at the Under-20 World Cup, where he helped lead Venezuela to the final, though a 1-0 loss to England denied the South American country its first world title. Despite that defeat, Herrera and his teammates still left South Korea having played some of the best soccer in the competition, and Herrera was at the heart of it.
A box-to-box midfielder with a tireless motor and well-rounded game — who counts Sergio Busquets and Paul Pogba as inspirations — Herrera had scouts drooling and cursing in equal measure as they realized he had already been scooped up by Manchester City last winter and sent out on loan to NYCFC for the 2017 season.
“That showed how our scouting department works, because if we were trying to get him after the World Cup, it would be too late,” NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said. “Because he did really well. He was one of the best, if not the best player of the tournament.
“We knew about the talent because we scout him and we scout him quite really well,” Vieira said of Herrera. “He just needed time to to adapt to the country, to try to understand the language, to understand the pace of the game. He needed time to adapt himself. And then he started to feel comfortable and now he’s playing fantastically well for us. He’s an important part of our team and I’m glad that he’s doing well. I still believe there is more to come from him.”
NYCFC fans had already begun to see the impressive potential Herrera possesses in the matches before he left for the Under-20 World Cup. After spending the season’s early months on the bench adapting to life in a new country and new league, Herrera broke into the NYCFC starting lineup in a big way, registering a goal and assist in his first start, a 3-1 win against the Columbus Crew on April 29.
Herrera started again in a 3-1 win against Atlanta United, and at that time it looked like he would put a hammerlock on a starting central midfield role. The only problem was the looming Under-20 World Cup, a tournament NYCFC wanted him to skip in order to stay with the team. Herrera couldn’t turn his back on his country though, and went to the U-20 World Cup anyway.
The result was on outstanding showing for Herrera, as he commanded the Venezuela midfield to an undefeated run to the final, which included a win against the United States. The loss to England in the final did little to dampen the enthusiasm the Venezuelan U-20’s generated in their own country, which has been mired in civil unrest in recent months as public opposition to president Nicolas Maduro has grown amidst military brutality and food shortages.
“It was an extra motivation, a bonus for us knowing what was going on in our country and being able to give our people some happiness at a time when they needed it,” Herrera said. “As a player that fills your soul. I think we gave them some of the best times they’ve been able to experience in recent times with everything going on. The truth is that has filled us with a lot of joy knowing they were happy with what we were doing at the World Cup.”
As much as it meant to his countrymen and countrywomen in Venezuela, the run to the Under-20 World Cup final was an especially gratifying one for Herrera, as it helped show Venezuela as a program on the rise, while also convincing any skeptics that might have been wondering why Manchester City bothered to buy him from Atletico Venezuela last winter.
“It was a great experience at the World Cup, it’s the best experienced I’ve been able to enjoy in my short career.” Herrera said. “It showed me that nothing is impossible as long as you believe in your work and the teammates around you, you’re always going to be okay in life.”
Herrera skipped his team’s return to Venezuela — where the squad was greeted with a big celebration — in order to return to NYCFC two days earlier. He knew he had to get back to the job of grabbing a starting role, something he had pried away from Andrea Pirlo before leaving for the Under-20 World Cup.
For his part, Herrera doesn’t see himself as being locked in a head-to-head battle with the World Cup-winning Italian legend, but simply another young player fighting for minutes.
“Those are coach’s decisions more than anything,” Herrera said. “I haven’t been able to play with Pirlo yet, I’d love to and I’d be grateful if I had the chance to play with him.”
Though it remains unclear who Vieira will partner Herrera with in midfield in Saturday’s showdown with the New York Red Bulls, it seems pretty clear Herrera will earn a start. He has impressed Vieira and teammates with his ever-improving game and impressive poise for a teenager.
“I would bet that he will be a player for one of Europe’s big teams, for sure,” David Villa said of Herrera. “I’m not sure when, I’m sure with time because he’s only 19, but certainly he has talent and he’s ready. He knows what to do in each moment, when he does or doesn’t have the ball. He’s strong, he’s young. He’s a great kid off the field, and he knows what he has to do off the field when he’s not training.
“Now he just needs to play, to get games, gain experience, live good and bad experiences,” Villa added. “But for a 19-year-old he has advanced qualities you don’t normally see in a 19-year-old kid.”
The big question surrounding Herrera is just how long will he stick around with NYCFC. He is currently on loan with NYCFC from sister club Manchester City, but after the Under-20 World Cup he just had, there is sure to be growing interest among European clubs who see him as a player capable of making an instant impact.
“I want to finish the season here in good form, and I’d love to stay here, but I’d also like to look for another team in Europe where I’d have the possibility to play,” Herrera said. “Not necessarily Manchester, because I know that in England I can’t play yet, but in Europe I’d like to look for another option and a club where I can play.”
First thing’s first, Herrera must make NYCFC’s midfield his own, and in a twist of irony, the Venezuelan kid who chose soccer over baseball so many years ago must now shine at Yankee Stadium, on a converted baseball field. In some ways, it’s a fitting place to kick off what has already shown the makings of a truly special career.