“A lot of guys thought, ‘Oh man, this is Higuain. We’re getting a guy from Real Madrid,’” Finlay says. “It was the initial thought when you hear the name ‘Higuain,’ and that’s the only name we knew.”
But Columbus’s new star wasn’t Gonzalo Higuain, the former Real Madrid striker who now leads Juventus in the UEFA Champions League. Instead, Columbus had scored his older brother, the soft-spoken Federico Higuain, the third man in club history to occupy a Designated Player slot.
Nearly five years later, Higuain – known to many as "Pipa" – quietly helps lead a transformed Crew SC franchise. He’s still a soft-spoken family man. But in the ensuing years he’s learned English, adopted Columbus as his home, and become one of the most important pieces of any team in the league, on and off the field.
The Argentine has truly emerged from his shell, now a regular host to his teammates for barbecues at his suburban home. But he's still a little shy, and even elusive, they say.
“He’s kind of a unicorn off the field,” Wil Trapp says. “He kind of disappears and does this homely, down-to-earth thing. You could see him driving down the highway and you’d have no idea that he’s the most important player on our team in a lot of ways.”
That’s how Higuain likes it -- he’s friendly, but not particularly interested in media appearances or interviews. And when he does talk, his unwavering focus is on the team. To hear Pipa say “I,” even now that he does interviews in English, is a rare occurrence.
His teammates, however, do his talking for him.
“I’ve gotten to not only know the Pipa who everyone sees on the field, and the top player he is, but the great dad and the great husband he is,” Hector Jimenez says. “To hear his story and the way he talks about his kids and the way he lights up about it – that guy loves his family. And we’re a part of his family. He loves us with that same feeling, and that’s a little bit special to our team.”
The connection between Higuain and the rest of the group didn’t necessarily come naturally to him.
Justin Meram says Pipa’s “quality” was obvious from day one, but characterizes him as “a quiet guy” early in his Columbus tenure. Without a firm grasp of English, Higuain wasn’t always the most talkative or charismatic teammate.
But since head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter took over in late 2013, the Columbus boss says he’s seen a “transformation," watching the 32-year-old grow into an “important part of this team and club and community.”
“He went from a very good player to a very good teammate,” Berhalter says. “I think that’s the important thing that people don’t understand, the amount of work he puts in for the team and the selflessness he has on the field and the way he can bring people in and make guys better.”
Trapp says the star is “just a dad” off the field, while Finlay says he sees Pipa as the opposite of soccer stars who are “not always best friends with everyone.”
“What’s so special about Pipa is his down-to-earth mentality," Trapp says, "his willingness to pull any guy aside – it doesn’t matter whether it’s the first or last guy on the team – to talk about the game.”
Higuain has done plenty of that for Trapp since the latter signed to Columbus in December 2012, at age 19. The pair can often be seen discussing the game on the training field long after the rest of the team departs.
The young midfielder – who has grown from a teenager to the team’s captain in his five seasons – says he and Higuain have “sharpened each other,” and marvels at how far their relationship has come.
“He came to me that rookie year and said, ‘Keep going. You’re doing really well. I think you’re a very good player,’” Trapp says. “This year, in preseason, we were roommates. He said, ‘I remember when you were that kid and believing you could make your way.’ He believes in young players and he puts forth, in his own way, encouragement.”
Despite shying away from headlines and TV spots, Higuain’s teammates say he puts as much pressure on himself as anyone for the team’s success. Meram says he “embraces the pressure."
Finlay, meanwhile, says during “moments when we’ve had turmoil,” Higuain is often the one to make it clear – sometimes without words – that he faults himself.
“He’s taken blame for things,” Finlay says. “[He’s said], ‘I need to be better’ or ‘I’m not healthy. I’ve got to get healthy. I’ve got to get fit,’ and those kinds of things. He takes accountability because he knows he’s an integral part of the team.”
In easily the largest culmination of the concepts of notoriety and turmoil, Higuain found himself at the forefront of the most dramatic moment of the 2016 season. An on-field argument with Kei Kamara resulted in a fiery locker room monologue from the striker that led to Kamara openly questioning Berhalter’s judgement and ultimately being traded from the club.
Higuain was nearly silent during the process, preferring instead to put his head down and focus on the field.
And it’s been Pipa’s handling of those moments and his own success that makes him the player he has become to his teammates.
“He fits this club – that’s what we’re about,” Meram says. “No matter if it’s my success, his, Ethan Finlay’s or any of the guys that have been around – Kei Kamara – it’s all about the club. When it’s not about the club, guys move on. You’ve seen that.”
Now, Higuain is finding a burgeoning role in the Columbus locker room as a jokester, of all things.
The addition of countryman Gaston Sauro and Higuain’s growing knowledge of English has brought out a dry, sarcastic humor in the DP that caught his teammates off-guard at first, but has also helped to develop their existing relationships. Jimenez says the jokes have “definitely gotten him to talk a lot more.”
That doesn’t mean they can always tell when he’s joking, however.
“The funny thing about his sarcasm, especially if he’s trying to get it across in English, is that you don’t quite know if he’s not sure what he’s saying or if he knows exactly what he’s saying and you’re missing it,” Finlay says with a laugh. “You’ll laugh and go, ‘Wait, you’re kidding, right?’”
But that sense of humor doesn’t diminish his focus or intensity on the field.
His teammates think Higuain took Crew SC’s massively disappointing 2016 season as hard as anyone. And with many questioning Higuain’s ability to return to form following a series of layoffs to deal with a hernia, Finlay feels the playmaker came into the 2017 campaign with something to prove.
He’s done just that, blazing out of the gates with three goals and four assists in 2017, already equaling his total goals and assists number from last season.
“He took that [season] hard; he took it really personal,” Finlay says. “I think you’ve seen it in his reaction this year, to come back and come off of having surgery at his age and keep his level and push it back to where he wants to be and where it was in his first two or three years when he was one of the best 10s in the league.”
And as his career enters its final stages, Higuain still comes at the game with the exuberance of a younger player, watching games from all over the world in his spare time and talking about soccer with anyone who will listen.
“It’s cool," Trapp says, "to have a guy who's just so in love with the game."