OBETZ, Ohio — Federico Higuaín hasn't noticed teams playing him differently than last season, when he burst onto the scene in August and later was named MLS Newcomer of the Year while playing only 13 matches. But the numbers suggest he is being targeted in an attempt to shut down the Columbus Crew's offense.
“I think tactically we knew that Higuaín’s their engine," Chicago Fire midfielder Logan Pause told reporters after the Fire's 1-0 victory last Saturday. "Everything goes through him. He was a big priority for us tonight. Between the guys in the back and the midfield, they did a good job at limiting his touches where he is dangerous.”
Of course, it would be hard for Higuaín, signed as the third Designated Player in Crew history on July 27, to match his debut in 2012 when he had three goals and six assists in his first five matches. He finished the season with five goals and seven assists, but has just a goal and an assist in seven games this year — meaning he's scored three times with three assists in the past 15 matches.
"Teams are marking me the same way as last year," he told reporters on Wednesday through a translator. "It's teamwork. We need everybody on the team to have a good game, not one or two guys. If we do that we will be very successful. We need our performance to be better from everybody on the team, not just one person."
Crew defender Chad Marshall differs with Higuaín in that he feels the Argentine forward is drawing added attention.
"He's not the new guy anymore," Marshall told MLSsoccer.com. "Teams are planning for him and making sure they have numbers around him, but that opens up stuff for other guys so his presence is still helping us greatly on the field."
Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha said it's the responsibility of the rest of the team to step up.
"He has to work harder, obviously, and we have to work harder to find him," he said. "We have to find him in the right spaces so he can be effective. He's giving us opportunities to give him the ball. That's why we are successful offensively. We go from defending to attacking very quickly."
But not against Chicago, who did not allow a shot on goal or a free kick, where Higuaín is most lethal.
"One of the key factors was Higuaín in transition, making it really tight and difficult for him to play," Fire coach Frank Klopas said.
It's a safe bet that one area the Crew is concentrating on in practice this week in preparing to host D.C. United on Saturday is getting Higuaín into scoring areas.
"He's so good with the ball at his feet that we want to get it to him as quickly as possible and catch teams in transition," Columbus defender Josh Williams said. "If we can get the other team back pedaling, that's where he's most effective."
"I need to do my job like everybody else needs to do their job," he said. "I'm trying to do my best like the rest of the team."