How “world-class” Gonzalo Higuain saved Inter Miami’s 2022 playoff hopes

Higuain MIA goal cele 1

In the buildup to Tuesday’s vital Eastern Conference clash at Inter Miami CF, Columbus Crew center back Jonathan Mensah remarked that opposing striker Gonzalo Higuain “doesn’t want to” run and chase after possession.

That perhaps ignited a spark in the 34-year-old Argentine, who scored both Herons' goals upon beating the MLS Cup 2020 champions, 2-1, at DRV PNK Stadium – in a game that featured over a two-and-a-half-hour weather delay due to lightning.

“We have to thank that player because that was my team talk done, questioning Gonzalo’s ability,” Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville said postgame. “And it’s funny because yesterday we had a bit of a competition in the team about who had won the most titles and Gonzalo had trumped everyone with 15 and everyone else had won two or three.

“So we pinned that up on the wall, that was motivation and he’s winning us games of football. We need to score goals. For us to get into the playoffs, we need to score goals, we need to attack.”

Higuain, whose goals came in the 25th and 82nd minutes to negate Cucho Hernandez’s 41st-minute equalizer, said there are no hard feelings toward the Crew captain. But at the same time, “you should be careful what you say before a game because it can come back to haunt you.”

Most pressingly, Miami’s victory snapped a three-game losing streak and brought them two points below the Eastern Conference’s Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs line – and Columbus (seventh place) – with four games to go. Now in eighth place, Neville believes momentum is back heading into Sunday’s clash at bottom-of-the-league D.C. United (5 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

“There’s no holding back now, there’s no resting anyone,” said Neville. “We’ve got four cup finals to go and I firmly believe it’s in our own hands. Sunday we move on again. We’ve got to produce another big, big performance before the international break.”

Higuain, with his brace against Columbus, equaled his MLS season-high goals mark (12) from a year ago. The Designated Player has found a strong level lately, a development Neville believes comes down to a midseason trade acquisition from Toronto FC.

“He’s taken us, he’s leading the team, he’s inspiring everyone in that dressing room,” Neville said. “I’d say that over the last two and a half years that he’s been at this football cub, he’s probably at times not done that. But I think what he’s found … he’s found a player in [Alejandro] Pozuelo that’s on the same wavelength as him. And he’s found a dressing room that adores him, looks up to him, respects him, but also needs him for these big moments.

“And in the rain delay, he was the one that was driving everyone on. And he doesn’t need the armband. It’s his body language, it’s his behaviors that I think we’ve seen over the last three, four, five months has been world-class.”

Early in the 2022 season, Neville preferred Leo Campana over Higuain, who arrived from Italian powerhouse side Juventus midway through the club’s expansion campaign in 2020. And the Ecuador international, who’s on loan from English Premier League said Wolverhampton Wanderers, rewarded that faith with goals.

Reflecting on that decision, Higuain was open-minded. He has a team-leading 12g/3a, while Campana is right behind him with 8g/2a – and got 17 substitute minutes vs. Columbus to mark his return from injury, having missed six weeks.

“At the start of the season I struggled, Leo was playing well, and the coach chose to start him,” Higuain said. “I had the humility to accept it and keep working, knowing that my moments would come because the season is long and the most important games are at the end.”

With Higuain and Campana both leading the line, Neville is confident a real playoff push is taking shape.

“With Leo Campana back now, getting his [second-half] minutes, it means we’ve now got our top two scorers ready to play and ready to fire us to where we want to get to,” Neville said.