BIG READ: From undrafted prospect to MLS star, Canadian defender Kyle Hiebert is on the rise
If you had the chance to catch the third matchday of MLS action live, you've now likely heard about St. Louis City SC's Canadian centre-back, Kyle Hiebert – who you'd be completely forgiven for never having heard about even a month ago.
The 25-year-old Winnipeger from Missouri State has enjoyed a rapid ascension to the forefront of the Major League Soccer conversation after literally going undrafted a year ago, to scoring a game-winning goal against the Portland Timbers and earning Man of the Match plaudits for those heroics.
Kyle Hiebert opens his MLS account 🎯— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 12, 2023
It’s been a great start to the year for St. Louis, and it continued today with a big win, one in which CB Kyle Hiebert🇨🇦 scored the game winner
He’s made a great jump up to MLS. Good to see it continue#CanMNT👀?pic.twitter.com/57dbFjoxab
Hiebert's journey to the pros has already put him in conversation for a Canada men's national team call-up, due, mainly, to his rock-solid defensive work over the month of March. But Hiebert has also greatly benefitted from the attention given to St. Louis in general. Last week, approximately 22,500 rabid soccer fans packed into the brand-new Citypark Stadium as they welcomed MLS's newest franchise to the league. That electric, almost-grandiose atmosphere wasn't really on anyone's radar, so there's plenty of neutral eyeballs on Missouri these days.
Ditto for Kyle Hiebert. He's helped orchestrate back-to-back-to-back turnaround victories for St. Louis City SC, all with the support of a diehard group of fans in his second home down south.
"We’re a high-pressing team, so we're feeding off (that support),” Hiebert explained to OneSoccer last week. "There was one moment that stands out; it was our striker, Nico Gioacchini, in the fifth minute. He pressed a Charlotte center back, and then kept pressing through to the goalkeeper, where he made a slide tackle and won the ball, and then we got a really good chance, and the crowd was absolutely berserk. So that told us that alright, this pressing style is working, and we're feeding off the crowds' energy, which they kept going the whole game."
And for Hiebert, it’s a moment that he’ll never want to trade for anything in the world. Having spent nearly a decade in Missouri, he’s about as embedded into the culture there as anyone, so he remains eternally grateful to have been a part of such a key moment in their soccer history.
The road from La Salle to Springfield
Yet, these are the sorts of moments that Hiebert long dreamed of when he was a kid, growing up in the rural Manitoba town of La Salle. Despite being in a province that has always loved sports like hockey and curling, especially given the cold that the province experiences in the winter, he always gravitated toward the world’s game, and stuck around as he got a taste of what the sport can really mean to people.
“Yeah, I think for me, soccer was something I always gravitated towards due to that ease of access to the sport,” Hiebert expressed. “When you’re a little kid, you can just get a ball at your feet and just play as long as you had space to do so, whereas in the sport that's predominantly played in Canada, hockey, you need ice time, expensive equipment, skates and to go play with other people.”
“I was very fortunate when I look back on growing up playing soccer in Manitoba, as Manitoba is a melting pot of a whole bunch of different cultures and people that have come in, and all play soccer. So I was very blessed, as I got to play with and meet people from all over the world at a young age, and that's something that I would never change. I know it's had a big, really big influence on me.”
So after spending his youth playing the sport, there was no doubt what he wanted to do as he got older, and that was to keep playing as a professional.
Having played several years with the top teams in Manitoba, such as PDL side WSA Winnipeg, where he even earned youth Canadian National Team caps, he quickly emerged as a standout at his age level, too, helping make that dream a feasible reality.
But then, despite that, that dream then started to fade away in 2015. There, after committing to Missouri State as a centre back, a position he’d recently converted to thanks to the tutelage of one Rob Gale at the youth level, he ended up having a nightmare start to his life in university.
First, he suffered what seemed to be a relatively tame left MCL injury ahead of his first year, one that ended up keeping him out of action for all but one game year, forcing him to redshirt the season.
Then, fully healthy again ahead of his second year, he blew out his right PCL in preseason, forcing him to redshirt another year, which was especially frustrating given that he’d seemed to have won a starting spot during that camp.
Because of that, he didn’t end up getting his first full season until 2017, in what was supposed to be his third season.
Yet, despite all of that setback, which Hiebert admits was a pretty dark time for him, he just kept on plugging away with his recovery, knowing that one day he'd be back, and that he'd be able to get back on track with his now heavily postponed dream.
“Yeah, I remember it well thinking back, it was a dark period, especially when I got the second injury,” Hiebert admitted. “Because the first one was like, “Okay, you have a little bit of adversity”, as I’d torn my MCL before going to Missouri State, and it wasn't supposed to be a season-ending injury, but for that whole season, I was always two weeks away every time I talked to the doctors.”
“So then, that second knee injury was super tough because I had fought and earned a starting spot in the spring, and was starting the preseason games, and then I tore my PCL in my right knee, and that one I knew instantly that my season was over. But (despite that), I never stopped believing, I knew God had a plan for me and my life, and so I held on to that.”
“There were definitely ups and downs, but there was always this light at the end of the tunnel for me, and that was to get healthy and see if I could be a really good college soccer player, and I knew taking it one step at a time would hopefully one day create opportunities to do what I do now.”
Canadian Kyle Hiebert (La Salle, Man.), a senior defender at Missouri State, makes United Soccer Coaches' NCAA Division I first-team all-American squad for the second straight year. St. John's junior goalkeeper Luka Gavran (Hamilton) named to third team. pic.twitter.com/sAovvK2oUQ— Neil Davidson (@NeilMDavidson) December 10, 2021
From SuperDraft snub to St. Louis first team player
Once finally healthy, Hiebert never really looked back during the rest of his time at Missouri State. He ended up blossoming into one of the best centre backs in the country across the next five years, even earning Mac Hermann nominations for the best NCAA players in the country, helping his Missouri side go from an afterthought to a legitimate contender.
Although they never ended up winning any national championships, it was a fulfilling time for both Hiebert and his program, making it a bittersweet moment for both when it came to an end in the fall of 2021 with an early first-round loss in his final playoff run.
Despite the sadness of leaving Missouri State, though, Hiebert was very excited at that time. Having done what he’d done over the course of his five seasons, he’d felt that he’d given himself a great shot at going pro, with his main goal being to attend MLS’s Super Draft.
Winnipegger Kyle Hiebert is among the list of players eligible for the MLS draft next week. Has won numerous individual honours as captain of Missouri State including conference defensive player of the year and second team All-American in 2019. https://t.co/CCykkfQmGC— Ryan Brandt (@Ryan_Brandt) January 14, 2021
There, however, he then got hit with a huge surprise. Despite being one of the best players in the country, the then 24-year-old was told that he wouldn’t even be invited to the MLS combine, robbing him of the chance to go prove himself to MLS teams with other top draft-eligible players.
Either due to his age, or Canadian passport, that wouldn’t end up being a possibility for Hiebert, who despite still remaining eligible for the draft, was immensely disappointed, knowing that he’d likely have no shot of getting picked unless he got a good look at the combine, especially given Missouri’s early playoff exit.
But then, in an extreme turn of fate, he then quickly got a call that would change everything from one John Hackworth. St. Louis City’s 2nd team coach, he was tasked with putting together a roster in MLS Next Pro, which St. Louis would use it as a launching pad to find and develop talent ahead of their maiden MLS season in 2023.
There, Hiebert had immediately emerged as a potential high-upside signing for Hackworth, given that he was a known name in the Missouri soccer scene, and also had the added bonus of holding a green card from his lengthy time in the state, facilitating such a move.
So before the disappointment of his dashed Super Draft hopes had even really set in, Hiebert was soon signing his first pro deal with St. Louis, who offered him a second-team deal, with an option to sign a first-team contract if St. Louis liked what they saw.
And in the end, that ended up being hugely beneficial to Hiebert, who immediately became one of the second team’s pillars at the back, playing 27 games as his team made a run to the MLS Next Pro final, where they lost to the eventual champions, Columbus Crew 2.
Thanks in part to the strong play of Hiebert, who was named to the league’s best XI and did well to keep his starting spot throughout the year, even as the club’s first MLS signings (which included a few Bundesliga players, among others) joined the team halfway through to stay fit and get acclimatized with the city ahead of 2023.
Because of that, it quickly became obvious that Hiebert would be eventually offered that first-team contract, a reality that finally came to be in August of last year.
“Yeah, the journey has had ups and downs, for sure,” Hiebert reminisced. “I remember when my (final) college season ended at Missouri State in the fall of 2021, and not getting invited to the MLS combine was pretty devastating. I was like, “what's next?”.”
“And I think it was that same day, I don’t know, maybe they saw the combine list and saw I wasn’t on it, but then (St. Louis City 2 coach) John Hackworth called me, I guess he had seen me play during the year, and he told me he was interested, and St. Louis came up with a deal that I think suited me very well. It was a one-year deal with the second team, with an option to sign for the first team after.”
“And I (liked it), as I believed that over the course of a year, hopefully some of my best attributes would better emerge than if I was trying to stand out in (a combine) when you’re trying to get drafted, where a lot of intangibles, in particular, don't come to the forefront as much. So in that case, I actually thought being in that situation being locked in one year with the second team with a first team that didn't exist yet was the perfect scenario and situation for me.”
Plus, making Hiebert's story even more impressive?
Not only was he battling to earn that contract, but he also did so while balancing life working as an accountant, too, as after earning his bachelor's degree and a master's in accounting, he decided to study to become a CPA last year.
So that meant after training in the morning, he’d often head back and work on taxes, instead of playing video games or other things of the sort, which isn’t something that you usually see from a professional soccer player. Yet, that shows Hiebert’s discipline and commitment to being the best version of himself on and off the field, which is fuelled by his strong inner drive.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he’s actually kept up accounting even after making the jump up into MLS, allowing him to continue to put his degree to good use while also balancing going up against some of the best forwards in the league.
“Yeah, so I'm actually going to continue to do a little bit on the side,” Hiebert admitted with a smile when asked.
“I have extreme flexibility in my schedule, which is really what I need so I can focus on soccer, and they recognize that and want me to focus on soccer as the primary thing. But then if I've got some extra hours where I want to keep growing in accounting, that's something I can do. And that's something I did throughout college, it was balancing those two things, accounting and soccer, so I think I've figured out a good rhythm and way to do that. And that's something that I continued to do last year as well.”
Getting on Canada's radar?
And given his play so far to start the season, it’s a balance that’s working for him. As a result, many are starting to take note of him this season around MLS.
Plus, most importantly, he’s starting to get noticed north of the border, as Canadian fans have started to realize that there is a Manitoba-born centre back plying his trade for an exciting St. Louis side.
In particular, there’s likely one Canadian, John Herdman, who is keeping a close eye on Hiebert, as it is no secret that Canada’s Men’s National Team head coach is always looking for players who could one day play for his side, especially those who play at the centre back position.
Because of that, there’s a strong possibility that if Hiebert keeps this up, he could once again don the maple leaf kit, as he once did at the youth level. Given that some of Canada’s current centre back options, Kamal Miller, Doneil Henry, Joel Waterman and Lukas MacNaughton, all play in MLS, there’s no doubt that Hiebert could earn a look, especially seeing how good St. Louis has been in MLS so far.
Among the many Canadian stars in #MLS, a new face has emerged over at St. Louis City SC 👀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) March 4, 2023
Did you catch Kyle Hiebert's debut? #CanMNT fans, check this out 👇
WATCH (FULL) ▶️https://t.co/hMebMz60pE pic.twitter.com/jjnbt4L39w
Which, if it were to happen, would be a huge next step in his winding soccer journey for Hiebert, who has long dreamed of such a thing occurring. Having fought through all sorts of adversity to be where he’s at, he knows what it’ll take to make that next step, so he’s focused on doing what he can, and then going from there once the numbers all fall into place.
And given what he’s shown so far in his journey, you wouldn’t put it past him being able to make it a reality, so look for him to try and build off this to make one day playing for Canada a possibility, continuing his dream start to 2023.
“Yeah, that would be a dream come true,” Hiebert admitted when asked about playing for Canada “It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a little kid. My focus is like when I was in college, though, which was just about going one day at a time, and just focusing on the college season, and then as our coach said, if we were good enough, the pro stuff will take care of itself.”
“And that’s my focus now, I know that the dream is there, but rather than just focusing on the big dream and those big goals, I just try and take it day-by-day, so focusing on (the next game), and then hopefully a byproduct of that is something with the Canadian Men’s National Team materializing.”