For Yangel Herrera, U-20 World Cup and NYCFC breakout is just the beginning
- Yangel Herrera made a name for himself on the world stage at the Under-20 World Cup with Venezuela, but if he has things his way, that's just the start.
Venezuela's performance during the FIFA U-20 World Cup ended with much-deserved admiration, where these talented players showed tremendous courage in every match. It was a tournament that saw La Vinotinto fighting valiantly against tough opposition, and eventually going all the way to the final before a heart-breaking 1-0 loss to England.
But the defeat should not overshadow the team's accomplishments, led by 19-year-old captain and heart of the squad, Yangel Herrera. Currently playing with New York City FC on loan from Manchester City, Herrera won the Bronze Ball in South Korea, named the third best player in the tournament after England's Dominic Solanke and Uruguay's Federico Valverde took gold and silver, respectively.
The Venezuelan midfielder played every minute for his team, and it was his goal in extra time against Japan in the round of 16 that steered the South Americans to the last eight.
The U-20 World Cup was a vehicle where he could showcase his talents, but as a Venezuelan, it was also a chance for him and the team to offer a ray of proverbial sunshine to a nation dealing with political and economic instability.
"We were extremely aware of the immense support we were getting, not just in Venezuela, but South America too," Herrera told SI.com. "Back home, the games in South Korea were really early in the morning, but we would hear how people would either wake up really early or stay up to watch it, and that meant so much. It was this unconditional support that meant everything, so I'm happy to know that we were able to reward them with a small gift, especially as we, as a nation, are going through such a difficult time."
Herrera is a tireless workhorse, showing maturity beyond his years, but his real asset is how he reads the game as a central midfielder. In many ways, he has the attributes of an old-school defensive midfielder where his major responsibility for NYCFC is to break up play. But he also enjoys going forward, pushing the pace when his team is in possession, a past trait from his earlier days as a youth when he would play as striker. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that he models himself after his own coach, Patrick Vieira, who was one of the greatest to have ever played that role.
"I'm extremely happy and proud to come to America and play under the guidance of such a great person like Patrick," Herrera said. "He has, without a doubt, shown a lot of faith in me and it's because of that faith that my game has improved. The fact that we play the same position is so great, because he gives me such great advice, and it's so clear in practice. I take it all in."
Timing has been essential for Herrera's development, as it wasn't until the end of April when he came on the radar and started for NYCFC against Columbus for the first time this season. Herrera started ahead of Andrea Pirlo, and took full advantage by scoring. It was his pressure that helped Jack Harrison score the winning goal 12 minutes later.
After the match, Herrera was clearly jubilant.
"Thank God for the confidence the coach had to start me today. Thank God we had a great game. The team and I are going to continue the victory and we’re going to keep working to stay on top," Herrera said
This past weekend, Vieira did not hesitate and started him against the current MLS champions, the Seattle Sounders. He played the full 90 minutes and controlled the midfield, helping his team achieve a 2-1 victory–and impressing his own supporters in the process.
While Herrera is enjoying his soccer here in the U.S., he believes MLS is only the first step of what will hopefully be a successful career on a bigger stage.
"My ultimate goal is to play for a big team in Europe, so this is why I work so hard. I love playing here, but my dream is to play in the Premiership or a European league of similar quality."
It's tough to picture what role Pep Guardiola would have for Herrera in the immediate future at Manchester City, given its star-studded squad and especially when you consider some of the midfielders being linked to a move at the Etihad this summer. But that's not to say that the young South American can't make a statement in the U.S.–or elsewhere–before he returns to England, and given the fact that he's still a teenager and on his way on becoming a full-time senior member of the national squad, a career in Europe is very much a possibility.
Guardiola may very well decide the next step is another loan, this time in Europe, where he could emulate Tomás Rincón and play a few seasons in the Bundesliga. Rincón, the defensive midfielder who now plays for Juventus, played six seasons with Hamburg before he moved to Serie A. He is Venezuela's captain, with 82 caps. The consensus by many in Venezuela is that Herrera has all the attributes to become his successor.
We may not be certain of Herrera's future, but given his trajectory and the manner in which he handles himself for club and country, there's no doubt that the club who ends up with his services will feel confident it made an excellent decision.