Fabian Herbers is the one of the hottest players on the Chicago Fire. With four goals since Aug. 25, he’s helping to lead a Fire resurgence that’s seen the team go from the basement of MLS into playoff contention.
Back in March, the idea that Herbers was starting was surprising to many fans. At this point, dropping him from the XI seems unthinkable. But as good as he’s been of late, Herbers is still remarkably humble. Getting Herbers to talk about himself is a struggle. Every chance he gets, he gives credit to his teammates. He’s a bit of an anti-Zlatan in that regard.
“When the team has success, individuals have success as well, which is what’s happening to me right now,” Herbers tells Hot Time in Old Town.
So, how did a kid from a tiny town in the far western part of Germany end up starting for a Major League Soccer club in the United States? To find out, we achieved something difficult: We got Herbers to talk about himself.
“The irony was coming to the United States, I almost gave up my dream of playing professional soccer,” Herbers says.
From “Almost boring” Ahaus to Omaha
The Fire list Herbers as being from Ahaus, Germany, a town near the Dutch border. But, Herbers says that’s not totally true.
“I’m from like five miles away from that,” Herbers says. “It’s a village even smaller, it’s like 3,000 people there. Countryside, a lot of farms there, stuff like that. So it was very traditional German I would say. Almost boring.”
Growing up, Herbers’ parents owned a bar – the “Gaststätte Herbers,” on the eastern edge of that small village, Ottenstein. His parents have since sold the bar, but it retains the name. Herbers played for a local club called FC Ottenstein as a little kid, and remembers his dad going out of his way to make it to his matches.
“In Germany, the bars are open until like six a.m.,” Herbers says. “So, my dad would always work on the weekends until like 6 a.m., and then still make it to my game in the morning at like 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. He’d sleep like three hours, and then drive wherever I was playing that day. It was a great commitment for him, and obviously I wanted to make him proud as well.”
While there, Herbers idolized the pros that played down the road in the Ruhr, Borussia Dortmund. Even now, he’s still a big fan, watching about 90-percent of BVB matches live.
“In my area, it’s either Schalke or Dortmund, to be honest,” Herbers explains. “I was always a Dortmund fan. Very exciting when they had the glory years with Jurgen Klopp.”
As it became clear Herbers had a lot of talent, he joined the academy at FC Twente Enschede, just across the border in the Netherlands. He played there for six seasons, before returning to Germany to play for three more years at three different clubs: Sus Stadtlohn, Preussen Münster, and VfL Rhede. At that point, Herbers was at a crossroads. He was ready for something new, even if it meant giving up his dream of playing professional soccer. “I feel like that’s why I came to America, because I wanted to get out of that small town,” he admits.
Herbers decided to leave Ottenstein for Omaha, Nebraska, to attend college at Creighton University.
“I definitely did not come with the purpose, hey, I go two or three years in college, and then I want to play pro in MLS. That was not the plan,” he says. “I was just gonna come enjoy college. I liked the dual system, where you can get your degree and play in a decent college team. Just a good time, you know? I just wanted something different, broaden my horizons, come across the sea, see something different. And just enjoy myself.”
At Creighton, he thrived. Herbers scored 28 goals in 62 appearances under Head Coach Elmar Bolowich, a fellow German who heard about Herbers, and recruited him to Omaha. His team made the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, and Herbers was gaining recognition as one of the best college soccer players in the nation. He was twice named as an NSCAA First Team All-American. In his junior year—his final year there—he scored 15 goals, tallied 17 assists, and was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. Herbers was also a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist.
During that time, one of Herbers’ best memories happened off the field. It came in 2014, when he watched as Germany beat Argentina 1-0 to claim the FIFA World Cup. He remembers one player standing out above all the others—Bastian Schweinsteiger.
“I remember his performance against Argentina in the final,” Herbers says. “Hit in his face, he was bleeding. It was kind of that picture of the German fighter, you know? I was still in college when I was watching that game, that final, and it was so emotional.”
Herbers had no idea what was still to come. But, suddenly, because of the success he was having at Creighton, the idea of playing professional soccer was back on the table.
“If I didn’t make this step, maybe I’d be playing somewhere in third or second division in Germany right now, and nobody would know me here,” Herbers says. “I like my path. It’s unconventional, but I’m very happy, and I have my degree as well.”
Going Pro: Drafted by Philadelphia
After being selected sixth overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, Herbers had a solid rookie year with the Philadelphia Union. He scored three times, and tallied seven assists. “As a rookie, you kind of play like you can’t do anything wrong, really. Because you’re still a rookie, so mistakes are forgiven,” he says.
That’s when things started to go wrong. After playing 32 games as a rookie, Herbers only made 12 appearances in 2017. He was hurt for a good chunk of the season, and when he came back in 2018, the team had essentially moved on without him.
“In the third year, the team had changed, had success,” Herbers says. “Most games, I couldn’t even make the bench anymore. I played like nine games total that year. I was still a little bit suffering with that injury, and then the confidence would go. Sometimes, it goes like that.”
One of Herbers’ teammates at the time was a guy he’d play with again in Chicago: CJ Sapong.
“Fabi was always somebody when he came in he showed he had quality,” Sapong says of their time in Philadelphia. “For me, as a striker, I always saw his ability to get goals and create goals. But this league is tough. Timing, form, and just the nature of your environment have so much to do with whether or not you’re gonna find that opportunity.”
New Beginnings: The Trade to Chicago
In late 2018, Herbers’ MLS career got a lifeline. Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunović thought he had more to offer, and brokered a trade that brought the German to Chicago. Herbers was thrilled to get a second chance.
But there was one very big question lingering. Would he get to play with the guy he watched win the World Cup five years earlier? Herbers was home in Germany when he heard the news: Der Fußballgott was coming back for one more season.
“I was celebrating with my family that I got to play a year together with Bastian Schweinsteiger,” he says. For those that still don’t understand what Basti means to Germans, Herbers puts it in terms every Chicagoan can understand.
“People that don’t understand soccer, they don’t know,” Herbers explains. “But it was a really special year, for me. I mean, it’s our Michael Jordan that we have in Germany. If anybody had told me five years (after the World Cup win) you’re gonna play with him, I would have called them crazy, probably. It was a cool experience to play with him, to say the least.”
Herbers played 17 games for the Fire in 2019, scoring three times. His career was back on an upswing—when the coach who brought him in, Paunović, was fired.
The new man in charge, Raphael Wicky, was instantly impressed with Herbers’ intelligence, hard work, and positive team-first attitude. Wicky inserted him in the starting lineup on opening day, and has kept him there all season.
“He has become an important player for our team,” Wicky says of Herbers. “He can play multiple offensive positions—as an eight, as a ten, he can be wide coming inside, he’s a guy you can always count on. He’s a player who creates a lot through his runs. He works hard for the team, brings a good intensity into the games, so there’s a lot of positives with Fabi.”
The fact that Wicky saw Herbers as a key player with the Fire left some fans confused. When the Fire struggled at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Herbers found himself the subject of a lot of criticism from fans on Twitter. “Who is this guy?” “He can’t complete a pass!” “He’s a USL player at best!”
Herbers doesn’t spend too much time listening to the critics, he says. The bad years in Philly built up a thick skin, and Herbers knows when he needs to do better.
“I’m not too much on Twitter, to be honest,” Herbers says. “I’m an Instagram guy. But, obviously I know when I’m not playing well, and when I’m doing well. I’m the first one to look in the mirror and reflect on myself, and my performances.”
Since returning from the Orlando tournament, Herbers has been red hot, and the Fire have pulled themselves back into contention for a spot in the 2020 MLS Playoffs.
“From an individual level, it does feel good,” he says. “I had different phases of my career. It’s my fifth year in Major League Soccer. I’ve been in the stands, I’ve been on the bench, I’ve been injured. Obviously, the times when you’re on the field playing, helping the team, scoring and assisting, are the times when you’re the happiest. So, I’m enjoying that right now.”
There’s a particular training exercise the Fire run that requires players to think fast, process commands quickly, and then sprint toward a finish line. It’s as much an exercise of the brain as it is the body. Herbers is, not surprisingly, one of the team’s leaders in that drill. That intelligence extends off the field, where Herbers is working on his master’s degree in applied economics. He chips away at the degree from his apartment, in between training sessions and matches.
That work ethic he learned back in Germany from his parents at their restaurant is paying off. The critics are silent, for now. Herbers is healthy, playing the best soccer of his life, and has been rewarded with a contact extension that will keep him in Chicago through 2023.
His run of form is making Herbers look like the Fire’s next Fußballgott. But, in typical Fabi fashion, he gives all the credit to his teammates. “At the end of the day, it’s about the team. If we get the results, if we get the three points, then the fans are happy, and all the criticism is gone,” he says.
Whatever happens next, that little kid from far western Germany achieved his dream of playing pro soccer, after all. He was teammates with a national hero. And now he’s a leader in Chicago. It probably wasn’t the most typical plan for a German to become a professional footballer, but for Herbers, it was the right one.
“I’m happy how it worked out,” he says.