Orlando's engine Cristian Higuita targets MLS stardom, Olympic glory

ORLANDO, Fla. – The likes of Kaká, Cyle Larin, Brek Shea and Joe Bendik may be getting most of the limelight for Orlando City SC for various reasons right now, but one player who remains largely under the radar may turn out to be the most talked-about this summer.

Cristian Higuita has already been linked with a move to Italian powerhouse AC Milan, been drafted into Colombia’s provisional 40-man squad for Copa América Centenario and been listed as a potential starter for his country in this July’s Olympics.

The fact he was left out of the final 23 for Copa has strengthened feelings the tenacious midfielder is earmarked for an Olympic summer. While he remains as grounded as most of his tackles, he admits he is excited by the possibilities in his future.

The 22-year-old actually leads the league in successful tackles with 5.3 per 90 minutes, well ahead of second-placed Warren Creavalle (Higuita has started only seven games so far in 2016 through injury and suspension). But it is his consistent energy in the Lions’ defensive midfield that is the key to his success, and he credits the team for his rapid development.

“The truth is I’m happy with the work I’m doing,” he explained via an interpreter, ahead of Orlando's clash on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Union (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE). “I feel very happy here on the team, with my teammates, with the coaches, and I hope to keep growing. My games with Orlando have certainly helped me grow personally as a player.

“The continuity I get also helps me to continue to grow, and the amount of games gives me a lot of confidence. To be in this great city with such great fans, it helps me a lot as a player. It gives me motivation. And like I said, the minutes I’ve gotten have been important to currently make me one of the best in the league.” 

The team’s front office admits they were slightly fortunate to land the young prospect from Deportivo Cali in January 2015; they were originally looking at winger Carlos Rivas, who had been targeted by the likes of Benfica and Liverpool. And, when head coach Adrian Heath went on a scouting mission to Colombia, Higuita caught the eye as much as the fleet-footed Rivas, and City ultimately put in a bid for both of them.

The midfielder himself admits he has been given an extra spark by suggestions of national team recognition, and he is eager for more.

“I feel prepared to make the next step to international football,” Higuita insisted. “You always prepare for that, to get to bigger things. Being included in Colombia’s 40-man squad for Copa was really important for me, for my family, a really rewarding moment I’ll always remember. My first time, but now it’s passed and I have to wait for my next opportunity.

“It would be magnificent to be included in Colombia’s Olympic team. To be in the Olympics is a dream for me and my family. But that’s up to the coaches to decide. Right now, I just have to keep working hard.”

Being mentioned as an Italian target has definitely not escaped his notice and, if anything, it has sharpened his appetite for more MLS recognition.

“It’s a big motivation to hear European clubs like AC Milan are interested in me because I heard that rumor and, mentally, that gets you excited to keep growing and keep working,” Higuita added. “It means I’m doing a good job for my team.

“I think the work you put in gives you confidence if you want to go to a higher level, because international soccer and European soccer would be magnificent. But right now I’m here and I want to keep working. And, if one day I get an opportunity, sure, I would go to Europe.”

Higuita still peppers his conversation with references to the need “to reach the next level,” and City’s coaching staff admits there are some rough edges he needs to smooth out of his game, notably on the disciplinary side. He has already picked up one red and four yellow cards this year, to go with 10 bookings in 2015.

But there are no real doubts that the midfield dynamo is fully capable of going on to higher honors.

“We felt he had tremendous upside when we first saw him,” team president Phil Rawlins explained. “And he has developed really well, especially when you consider he is only just 22. We are really pleased with his progress.

“He is still maturing and developing as a player, but if he adds that necessary maturity to his game, the future for him is very bright. He could certainly play in Europe – and at a very high level if he continues to work at it the way he is now.”

MLS stats leaders 2016

Player Tackles Minutes Played Tackles Per 90
Higuita, Cristian 36 608 5.33
Creavalle, Warren 31 593 4.70
Matarrita, Ronald 49 970 4.55
Phillips, Demar 21 427 4.43
Sarvas, Marcelo 42 876 4.32
Ramos, Rodrigo 35 747 4.22
Medranda, Jimmy 25 552 4.08
Gruezo, Carlos 45 1001 4.05
Alex 44 985 4.02
Chara, Diego 48 1080 4.00

*Statistics courtesy of Opta.