SANFORD, Fla. – When Cristian Higuita walked into Orlando City SC’s preseason training camp earlier this year, head coach Jason Kreis said the 24-year-old Colombian midfielder didn’t arrive fully committed.
Out of shape and lacking motivation, Higuita had his work cut out for most of the preseason and early stages of the 2018 campaign.
But his return to form and fitness has been a spark during Orlando City’s six-game winning streak, and that’s earned Kreis’ praise.
“Looks like different people,” Kreis said of Higuita. “He was probably 20 pounds heavier when he came in the beginning of preseason, and nowhere near as fit and nowhere near as hungry and nowhere near as professional as he’s proving himself to be right now.”
Higuita is one of only two players left from Orlando’s 2015 inaugural MLS season, along with goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. The Colombian has seen the club evolve tremendously amid coaching changes and roster overhaul, and has changed in similar ways himself. He calls it progress, a key factor in his personal growth as a player and a person.
“Progress has been really good, I’ve matured and gained a lot of experience through playing with big players who have more experience than me,” said Higuita. “Those players usually help you become a better person, but also a better player, so I think it’s been a really good time of growth for me.”
The midfielder acknowledged Kreis’ concerns during the preseason, adding that he subsequently took the proper preparations to get where he is today.
“It’s important,” said Higuita. “I think the recovery has been really good, and I’ve prepared myself physically despite the added weight. Now, I’m feeling great, and I’m on a good path.”
After failing to play the first two games of the season, Higuita has been a critical figure for the Lions as they turned things around following an 0-2-1 start. And according to Kreis, Higuita’s current form will be essential to Orlando when they host Atlanta United on Sunday at Orlando City Stadium (6 pm ET | FS1 - Full TV & streaming info).
“Critical, as he has been in the last several matches,” said Kreis. “I think he’s been really good for us. Really good for himself, and I think we have benefited from that. Just his energy, his work rate, his ability to cover ground, his simple play with the ball has been important for us and will be important this weekend.”
While the Deportivo Cali product has turned things around physically and mentally, Higuita says he’s benefited from playing with Yoshimar Yotun in central midfield, and praised the team’s depth, with teammates Oriol Rosell and Cam Lindley also competing for action.
“With Yoshi, we communicate very well. He’s a great player and person, who has a lot of experience,” said Higuita. “I feel good playing alongside him and with that, I feel the team feels a lot comfortable, but there’s also great players from outside that want to showcase their contributions. In this case, with Uri and Cam, who are also waiting for their opportunity.”