Rising stars Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita are Orlando City's engine room

Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita - Orlando City - chasing Khiry Shelton

ORLANDO, Fla.- Big-name stars Kaká, Antonio Nocerino and 2015 Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin may get most of the attention among Orlando City SC’s high-profile lineup, but if the Lions are to remain unbeaten at Philadelphia on Friday (7 pm ET; UniMás), it will be another duo who need to be at their best.

Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita are not the most eye-catching pair in MLS, but they are quickly developing the reputation as the twin rocks at the heart of Orlando’s midfield, the guys who solidify Adrian Heath’s 4-3-2-1 formation.

Both are among the league leaders for tackles and passing, and both have garnered praise from visiting coaches for their dynamic, non-stop work ethic. Together, they provide an all-action shield in front of the back four, and opposing teams are increasingly finding them a formidable barrier.

Consider the statistics (courtesy of MLSsoccer.com stats maven Benjamin Baer, league rankings since the start of 2015 in parenthesis) –

Tackles per 90
Passes per 90
Usage rate
Passing accuracy
4.82 (2nd)
56.77 (16th)
12.9% (25th)
86.9% (11th)
3.19 (18th)
59.75 (8th)
13.58% (16th)
86.09% (16th)

For Orlando to boast two of the top 20 tacklers (including the second-best) in the league is impressive. That the duo also make such good use of the ball when they win it makes each of them indispensable.

No wonder head coach Heath admits they are two of the first names he puts on his teamsheet.

“The most important thing from their point of view, if they play like they can, it makes it very difficult for me to leave them out,” he said. “One of the things these two have in abundance is incredible energy and they allow the players in front of them to get on and play their game.

“They have a big responsibility in that role and that is something we are continually working on, but they are still getting better and have a growing appreciation of their responsibilities. As other managers have told me, these two as a pair are very difficult to play against because there is just no respite against them.”

Despite the fact they don’t appear regularly on the team’s goalscoring highlight reel, they have already racked up several memorable moments this season.

In the 1-0 win at New York City FC last month, Higuita was a defensive monster, racking up a whopping 13 tackles (his best tally to date). He and Ceren combined for eight interceptions while also teaming up notably in the 16th minute to halt Khiry Shelton in his tracks and immediately set up a counterattack down the right.

Against Portland last Sunday, it was Higuita’s ambush of Darlington Nagbe on the halfway line and subsequent pass to Kevin Molino that led directly to Kaká’s goal and a crucial 3-0 lead.

El Salvador captain Ceren has already picked up the league’s Latino Del Año award as well as the team’s Player of the Year honor in 2015, while Higuita is coming ever closer to a full international call-up for Colombia.

Individually, they stack up well, but it is their bond off the field that is just as important in this fast-developing double act, as they explained via the team’s interpreter (both now speak English but their native Spanish better reveals the nuance of their relationship).

“More than teammates, we are like brothers, and that translates to the field,” the 22-year-old Higuita explained. “I have a really good relationship with Darwin, on and off the field, and that leads to good results. The fact we are both Latino, that we speak the same language, have the same ideas – even though he is a bit older than me – that helps a lot.

“We spend a lot of time together off the field. We hang out at his house, we go out to eat, our families spend time together and, at the end of the day, that benefits us on the field.”

Ceren, the ‘old’ one of the pairing at 26, has been with Orlando since their USL days after joining from Juventud Independiente in 2014 and is equally impressed by his younger battery mate.

“I think Cristian and I are successful on the field due to the friendship we have,” Ceren confirmed. “We hang out outside the field, we do some barbecues, we go out and spend a lot of time together, and I think that develops a great communication on and off the pitch that results in those two warriors that the team needs, and we are demonstrating it.

“I’ve always said Cristian is a great player. He is young and showcases in each game the great quality he possesses, and that motivates me. At the same time, I cannot let him work by himself; I have to fight alongside him. I care about everything that happens to him.”

The duo also have a deep appreciation for each other’s abilities in a complementary manner, as Higuita typically hurls himself into tackle after tackle while Ceren works in his wake and cleans up the occasional turnover.

“Darwin for me is one of the best players in the league,” Higuita insisted. “He is someone who has massively benefited the team, a player that has grown a lot and now is showcasing that at a very high level, and I hope he continues doing well.

“Our success, I think, comes from the physical conditions that we have and possess. My strength is the duels and tackles I make to gain the possession, and from there we create and distribute the ball.”

Ceren is equally approving. “Cristian hustles throughout the entire match, the full 90 minutes, and that motivates me to hustle as well,” he added. “I believe a part of the success comes from our hard work, the teamwork and of course from having clear objectives as a team and individually. Personally, I have a desire to improve what we did last year and that is why I’m working hard, fighting to fix my mistakes and be better every game.”