WASHINGTON – November is here, temperatures are dropping across North America and the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs are in full swing.
In the parlance of Columbus Crew SC: It’s Pipa season.
Federico Higuain was the oldest player on the pitch at Audi Field on Thursday night, but you’d hardly have guessed it by his man-of-the-match outing. The classy Argentinean scored both his team’s goals, orchestrated their possession game as usual, covered acres of ground on both sides of the ball over 120 minutes of gripping postseason soccer and capped it all by calmly dispatching Columbus’ opening spot kick in the tense penalty-kick shootout that decided their pulsating Knockout Round clash with D.C. United.
“Pipa thrives in the playoffs, man. He really does,” said Crew SC captain Wil Trapp after the visitors’ epic victory in front of a loud, proud sellout crowd at D.C.’s new home. “He steps up defensively, offensively – he scored two wonderful goals for us tonight, very timely. And his effort is just incredible. For being the quality player he is, the amount of tireless work he puts in is truly incredible, and when you see a guy like that doing it, it breeds confidence for the rest of the group.”
Higuain, who turned 34 last week, is approaching the end of his seventh year in Columbus. He’s worked under three head coaches, worn two different crests on his kit, reached an MLS Cup final (and lost it in heartbreaking circumstances) and endured the uncertainty around the club’s possible relocation to Austin, Texas.
All of it became fuel for the fire that burned brightly on Thursday, as the veteran showed cunning and character alike in a blood-and-thunder clash with the hottest team in the league.
“It’s not good – it’s not good, of course. It was a tough, tough, tough year for us,” said Higuain off the off-field challenges he and his teammates had to manage for the past 12 months. “But we’re here.
“For me, it’s just, advance. It’s for everybody in this locker room. We don’t care if we score, we don’t care who played good or who played bad. We know we can play good, we can play bad, but in this moment, we can’t be soft. That is our goal: Attack the games with all that we have.”
Though he’s widely seen as something of a throwback, a classic South American No. 10 in a modern game that’s grown less hospitable to that type of so-called luxury player, Higuain did a bit of everything to earn his side this win.
The Argentinean did a convincing impersonation of the proverbial “fox in the box” to sniff out a loose ball and bang it home from close range for his opener. Later, in extra time, he met Harrison Afful’s pinpoint delivery with a glancing, contorting header – “the ball was an amazing cross and I helped with some good direction,” Higuain later said with a chuckle – that any target man would be proud of.
In between he pressed, tracked back, distributed, took dead balls and generally did everything that could be expected of him in coach Gregg Berhalter’s cerebral system.
“He loves playoff soccer,” said Justin Meram of Higuain. “Our maestro stepped up in many big ways – not just the goals, but keeping possession, getting out of tight spaces and playing guys through. So hats off to him. That’s why I love playing with him.”
As goalkeeper Zack Steffen put it: “I mean, Pipa is the maestro. He’s amazing – and we need him. he’s a huge part of our team … He lives for these playoff games and these playoff moments. It’s just his time of the season.”
Higuain and his family have made central Ohio a happy home, and now he’s approaching club icon status, still pivotal – irreplaceable, even – to his squad. Trophies have been elusive, but with last year’s playoff run still fresh in their minds and a fanbase ready to give them a euphoric welcome back at MAPFRE Stadium, there’s no time like the present in Columbus.
“It’s not just me, I think it’s everyone in this club. We know we play for a nice club, we live in a nice city. All we want is [to] play good football,” he said with a quick grin.
“People here treat me very well. Staff, coach, my teammates, they push me all the time. I just want to play as long as possible. I love this game. I really like this moment of the year. I know my teammates like this moment of the year, also. We are looking for the big picture. We’ll see what we can do.”