Canadian defender Kyle Hiebert part of St. Louis City SC's hot start in MLS
Sitting atop the Western Conference after three straight wins, expansion St. Louis City SC has been the story of the young MLS season so far.
And Canadian defender Kyle Hiebert has done his part, playing every minute to date and scoring the 75th-minute winner in Saturday's 2-1 victory in Portland.
"It's been, honestly, a surreal couple of weeks," said the 25-year-old from LaSalle, Man. "Each game was special in its own manner … I've just been super-thankful for this club and this team that they took a chance on me. I'm honoured to be on the field representing them every game."
St. Louis opened life in MLS with a 3-2 victory at Austin FC before downing visiting Charlotte FC 3-1 in front of 22,423 ecstatic fans at CityPark, its new US$458-million soccer-specific stadium.
St. Louis is just the second franchise in league history to win its first three matches, joining the Seattle Sounders. It is also the first MLS club to record three straight come-from-behind victories since the Los Angeles Galaxy in August 2015 — and the only team to do so in the first three matches of a season.
St. Louis looks to become the first expansion team to win its first four matches when it hosts San Jose (2-1-0) on Saturday. The Earthquakes have recorded just one win in 20 road outings (1-13-6) in all competitions since the beginning of last season.
Hiebert has partnered with Tim Parker in the heart of a backline with plenty of Canadian ties. Parker and fullback Jake Nerwinski are both former Vancouver Whitecaps.
The other member of the back four in front of Swiss goalkeeper Roman Burki is fullback John Nelson.
Hiebert is no stranger to the Show Me state. He attended Missouri State in Springfield, some 350 kilometres southwest of the city, and his wife is from St. Louis.
Despite a stellar collegiate career — he was named Defensive Player of the Year three times in the Missouri Valley Conference — Hiebert did not get an invitation to the MLS Combine.
"At that time I had no plans, I had no agent," he recalled. "You kind of need the pro teams to come to you."
That's exactly what happened next. John Hackworth, now a St. Louis assistant coach and then coach of St Louis City FC 2, contacted him with an offer to play for the St. Louis reserve team in the MLS Next Pro League ahead of the MLS team's launch.
"It wasn't like a one- or two-week trial," said Hiebert. "It was a one-year pro deal which was also like a one-year tryout."
St. Louis fans wasted little time welcoming the new franchise, with Hiebert's first game for the reserve side last year drawing a crowd of 6,000 at Hermann Stadium on the campus of Saint Louis University.
Hiebert made the most of the opportunity, playing in 2,726 out of a possible 2,730 minutes over 29 matches in all competitions and was named to the MLS NEXT Pro’s Best XI.
Last August he was rewarded with a two-year contract with the first team, with an option for 2025.
There was a vacancy at centre back this season with Swedish international Joakim Nilsson recovering from a long-term knee injury. Another option is Josh Yaro, Hiebert's partner last season with St. Louis City 2.
The players have also benefited from for the club's infrastructure, which features a stadium, team HQ, training centre and practice fields all in one centralized downtown.
"Everything is brand new. It's state of the art," said Hiebert.
The club boasts that no seat at CityPark is more than 120 feet (37 metres) from the pitch.
"So no one is far away from the field or from the action," said Hiebert. "And you can feel that and you can hear that during the game. There's a palpable energy coming from all sides."
Hiebert attributes the expansion team's success partly to the fact that many first-team players were signed early, allowing them to train or play with the reserve team last year.
"It gave then a chance to get acclimated to the city and settle in," said Hiebert. "We got to know them and start to build those friendships and those bonds. And also myself personally, when all those guys came in, the level in training went up. And so it was making us all better as players."
The St. Louis designated players are German midfielder Eduard Lowen and Brazilian forward Joao Klauss.
Hiebert had a rough start to his collegiate career at Missouri State, missing both the 2015 and 2016 seasons with knee injuries.
He redshirted after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in 2015. His comeback in 2016 was delayed when he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Bears’ penultimate pre-season game at Creighton.
Restored to health, Hiebert went on to make 86 starts for Missouri State.
In 2019, he was part of a record-setting Missouri State team that went 16-0-0 in the regular season and won the college’s first-ever NCAA tournament game (against the University of Denver).
Hiebert was twice named one of 15 semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which goes to the top NCAA player.
Away from the field, Hiebert has earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in accounting along with a data analytics in accounting certificate.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press