In 2013, Columbus Crew SC were Federico Higuain’s team.
The Argentine Designated Player had arrived midway through the 2012 season and made an immediate impact, scoring five goals and adding seven assists in just 13 appearances to earn the 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year award.
For the 2013 season, Higuain was Columbus’ focal point. He was the team’s captain, their main source of offense and largely the face of the franchise.
But when Gregg Berhalter arrived in 2014, Higuain’s role changed. Berhalter installed Michael Parkhurst, an American and MLS veteran, as captain, and with the new boss’s attacking style came a new set of responsibilities for Higuain.
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The playmaker started dropping deeper, focusing on tempo and ball movement more than attacking the final third.
Even after the change, Higuain was named the club’s most valuable player in 2014, tallying 11 goals and seven assists on the season. And now, in his second season under Berhalter, the coach says his 31-year-old maestro understands his job better than ever.
“With any transition, it does take a while to become familiar,” Berhalter said. “He’s fully embraced his role in the team and what it means to play for Columbus Crew and he’s very happy in this city. And with the style of play, he’s found his role in it. Maybe from the beginning it took a while to become more defined, but now it’s clear and he understands it. It’s a complicated role, and that’s why it maybe took a little longer for him, because it’s such an important role and a complicated role.”
With names like Wil Trapp, Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay grabbing headlines, Higuain has become a more behind-the-scenes conductor for Crew SC in 2015. But like his countryman Guillermo Barros Schelotto, perhaps the most legendary name in Columbus soccer history, Higuain has found a home in Ohio.
“I believe I was lucky; I was playing in the past in Argentina, and this opportunity came about and we took it with many expectations,” he told reporters in a Spanish-language conference call. “I found a very complete and competitive league where you only need to think about playing and improve your game.”
Those expectations came largely from Schelotto himself. Before his move from Argentina to Columbus, Higuain talked to the 2008 MLS Cup winner.
“I had the chance to talk to Guillermo before coming here and I was able to prove everything he manifested about the league,” Higuain said. “[MLS is] a very nice league; [Columbus is] a very beautiful city to live in and people that love the team.”
Though he “never had any concrete offers” from European teams, Higuain has watched his brother Gonzalo play for the likes of Real Madrid and Napoli. He says he “would have liked” to have received a European offer, but like many MLS newcomers, he found the league more challenging than he expected.
“MLS has grown a lot in previous years; [physicality] is very important, with young and athletic players,” he said. “It might look easy in the beginning coming from abroad, but it’s not the same once you’re playing. That’s why international stars are surprised about the league and decide to stay here in the end.”
In that environment, the man known as “Pipa” has thrived.
Higuain added eight more goals and nine assists this season, and now sits tied for fifth all-time on Crew SC in goals and sixth in assists.
And while he’s not scoring 22 goals like Kamara, blazing down a wing like Finlay or doing commercials like Trapp, Berhalter says Higuain is an unheralded star on a team playing for MLS Cup.
“He’s the guy who ties everything together,” Berhalter said. “He ties the defense to the offense on both sides of the ball. He’s been fantastic this year, and his contribution is underrated in my eyes because he’s been performing at a really, really high level.”