Federico Higuain signed with D.C. United in March as a 35-year-old with a new club and an ACL that still hadn’t fully healed. He’s made his first two appearances for D.C over the past week. The 35-year-old with a new club and a newly healed ACL has two crucial goals.
Both goals have come in substitute roles, an oddity for a player who’d scored 55 times in the regular season before but not once as a substitute in the entirety of his eight-year MLS career. In 270 minutes coming off the bench for Columbus, it never happened. For D.C. it took him four. A gorgeous chip that kickstarted an improbable D.C. comeback against Toronto.
On Friday against New England, he decided that it was rude to keep people waiting that long. This time it took him three minutes to find the net. It wasn’t as pretty, but it was more efficient. Higuain swiped a sloppy backpass and snuck around the keeper for a gift of a goal.
Regardless of the degree of difficulty on each goal, in just 31 minutes of playing time, he’s been the single most important player for D.C. and cemented himself as a lock for the comeback story of the tournament. He’s also made it clear to Ben Olsen that, as he regains fitness, it’s going to be harder and harder to keep him off the field.
“We still have to be smart about how we build him, but the goal is to build him to compete for a starting spot,” Olsen said. “We might decide that he's a guy where we can't keep him off the field, but we also might decide as this thing goes, that he is a 30-minute player for us and maybe a 60-minute player. We don't know yet. But I'm open to it.”
Whatever his role going forward is, substitute appearances are new territory for Higuain. To succeed at the level he has comes down to an admitted bit of luck, but also the fact that he’s approached it with a little more maturity than maybe you or I would. It’s the kind of attitude that gets your manager to speak like a proud parent during a post-match press conference.
“I think this is probably the first time in his life he's ever been considered a super-sub. He's the guy that's always the focal point of a team from the get-go and you build around him,” Olsen said. “But that's the mentality that he has and the attitude that he’s had since he's gotten here. He has a willingness to do what's best for the team and he obviously can still play at a very high level.”
Watch: Should Higuain be a starter?
The unexpected scoring burst is what has gotten Higuain the attention and articles like this so far. But for D.C. he’s not only been a surprise scoring threat but a calming presence on the pitch. Each time he’s entered, they’ve played a little cleaner and obviously a lot better. Olsen mentioned multiple times the soothing effect Higuain had on his team. It’s a mixture of near-cliche veteran wiles mixed with the fact that he’s simply really, really good at what he does.
“There haven’t been many players in this league that understand how to pull the strings better than he does,” Olsen said.
Not bad for a 35-year-old with a new club and a leg that's healed just enough to let him carry his team on his back. At least for a few minutes at a time.