Heart woes finish TFC teen star

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:52 PM ET

Just four months ago, Zac Herold looked to have a bright future in soccer.

He had impressed so much with the U.S. under-17 program that Toronto FC selected him in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft, the Reds’ first selection overall in 2010.

Director of soccer Mo Johnston for TFC raved about the teen; he could play anywhere on the backline.

He was made a Generation Adidas prospect, one of the few U.S. prospects considered so precious that he wouldn’t count against the salary cap.

“He’s one of the best young kids in the country,” Johnston at the draft said.

Now Herold’s career is over. At 17.

Soon after he became TFC’s property, his electrocardiogram showed some disturbing results. After more testing by TFC’s Dr. Ira Smith and Dr. Christine Lawless, the head of cardiology for MLS, Herold was found to have Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle which makes it especially dangerous for the sufferer to do any strenuous exercise.

“Announcing my retirement from soccer at this age is something I never, ever thought would happen to me,” said Herold in a release. ”I am grateful to Dr. Smith, and all the specialists I’ve seen over the last few months — this news was very hard to take but I know it’s the best decision for me and my health.”

“It shouldn’t have any impact on his day-to-day activities,” said Dr. Smith during a Monday press conference. But for the rest of his life, Herold’s exercise will be limited.

“The main concern was the right diagnosis,” said Smith.

HCM was the condition that led to the death of Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foe, who collapsed during the 2003 Confederations Cup semifinal against Colombia.

Because Herold showed no symptoms, he went through the pre-draft combine with a clean bill of health. While MLS does routine physicals on players before they are drafted, the heart scans aren’t done until after a prospect is selected.

There is no way that either Toronto FC Mo Johnston or coach Preki could have known about any issues with the teen.

Lawless said it is difficult to detect heart conditions in athletes.

“Athletes tend to have their hearts reshape themselves because of the demands placed on their hearts,” she said.

Still, considering that players are signed to contracts with MLS and then assigned to teams in the central control model, one has to wonder why the ECG tests wait until after the draft, rather than being performed during the combine. The MLS draft class is small; the number of players at the combine isn’t massive. It wouldn’t be labourious to test them all.

MLS began doing heart tests on players in 2008, after a FIFA directive on cardiac safety was launched in 2006 — much of that spurred by the Foe tragedy.

“The MLS effort is part of a world-wide effort ... We have raised the bar in what we are doing for players’ safety and well-being,” said Lawless.

Soccer is the most dangerous of sports, a game that has been littered with players who have died on the pitch.

Foe’s death was followed by these tragedies: In 2007, Sevilla midfielder Antonio Puerta died in hospital after suffering a heart attack during a La Liga match.

He was only 22, and was just months away from becoming a father. In 2004, Hungarian striker Miklos Feher collapsed as he played for Benfica during a Portuguese league match — in full cardiac arrest. He was 24.

Drugs were not a factor in any of these cases. They are examples of how brutal, how demanding soccer can be.

Herold will get one chance to step onto the grass at BMO Field. The club will honour him before the kickoff of this Saturday’s game against the New England Revolution.


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