His goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, had just saved a Julian Gressel shot to give Columbus an early edge in the penalty-kick shootout that would decide the 0-0 match. And with 67,221 fans screaming in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Higuain calmly jogged up to the ball and lightly chipped it straight down the middle as Brad Guzan dived to the right.
Higuain had just executed a “Panenka,” the cheekiest of PK approaches, in the biggest moment of the match, and even his teammates – who have seen him create plenty of magic – were floored.
“The confidence to do that is just ridiculous; it really is,” Wil Trapp said. “You’re not surprised, but you’re like, ‘Did he really just do that?’ The first one, in front of their fans. It’s kind of disbelief, but at the same time, you almost expect him to do something.”
Despite its importance, the shot was no big deal for Higuain. He said he didn’t plan it with his teammates or consult anyone about it – he simply felt like it was the right play.
“It’s just the moment,” he said Friday. “My teammates trust in me and I trust in my teammates. I knew it was a very important PK because it was the first one. But I think it’s also a simple way to score.”
Head coach Gregg Berhalter is happy to defer to his Argentine playmaker in that moment, calling the play was “a big statement.”
“Pipa is a very intelligent player,” Berhalter said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly the tone that was going to set.”
Higuain’s shot did just that. The next shooter up was Atlanta’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who attempted a similar shot straight down the middle. Steffen didn’t budge, and Columbus was in the driver’s seat.
“I think it might have hurt them more than it helped us,” Justin Meram said. “Especially because one of their guys tried to do it and then it didn’t work. So it worked out perfectly.”
For Higuain, the shot was just a continuation of what he said Columbus tried to do for the entire match. He said Crew SC were “calm the whole game,” just like he was in his penalty kick.
“From the first minute, it was, ‘Let them know that we were there to play soccer,’” he said. “My PK was kind of that idea to say, ‘We respect you, but we’re here to play our game.’”
And while Columbus will be advancing thanks to their penalty-kick prowess, Higuain said he doesn’t even enjoy the concept.
“I don’t like to finish a game in that way,” he said as he shook his head, “[whether] you win the game or lose the game.”
Will watching Higuain’s penalty inspire his Columbus teammates to take a shot at their own high-pressure Panenka in the future?
“Hell no,” Meram said with a laugh.