COLUMBUS, Ohio – When setting his lineup for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Gregg Berhalter was left with a difficult choice.
In a must-win match Thursday in Washington D.C., Berhalter got two goals, a converted penalty kick and 120 intense minutes out of Federico Higuain, the man that makes it all work for Columbus Crew SC.
Less than three days later, facing the daunting challenge of hosting the New York Red Bulls, the team boasting the best regular-season record in MLS history, Berhalter had to decide whether his 34-year-old star could start.
“I spoke to Pipa at length and got a feeling for where he was at,” Berhalter said. “I think he actually recovered really well, and was actually in a position to potentially start the game. But we felt that we needed something else in the first half.
“We needed power; we needed to stretch them; we needed to open them up and really get after them in the first half and then thinking about ‘Will he be able to maintain that for 90 minutes?’ So we took a gamble.”
That gamble came in the form of benching Higuain for the first half of the biggest home game of the season. Against the Red Bulls Sunday, Berhalter opted for a 4-4-2 with Gyasi Zardes and Patrick Mullins up top and Higuain on the bench for the first half.
The ploy worked perfectly, and after a scoreless first half, Higuain entered the game at halftime and proceeded to set up the only goal of the game in a Crew SC win, a Zardes strike that came from a magical flick from the Argentine.
“He has eyes all over his head,” Zack Steffen said of Higuain. “Some of the plays and passes he made tonight were outstanding. I see the whole field, and I don’t even see that. He was a great spark to bring in for the second half and gave us energy and life.”
Though he said he “always want(s) to play,” Higuain said he put his trust in Berhalter, which turned out to be the right call.
“It was a difficult test for me,” he said. “Having played for 120 minutes, I’m not a 25-year-old guy. As I always say, no matter who plays on this team, we know the guy who steps up will show the best for this club.”
In the game’s biggest moment, Higuain chose a difficult flick rather than maintaining possession or playing the easy pass.
But that’s just what Higuain is supposed to do, he said.
“I thought maybe the center back would be very close to me and I risked the ball, as I always do,” he said. “I have to. It’s my job. I’m a No. 10. I have to try to do something different. If not, it’s not enough.”
At this point, Berhalter has largely run out of ways to describe his dazzling playmaker, and is simply accustomed to Higuain’s brilliance.
He was, however, willing to admit that it’s fun to watch him work.
“The game is about entertainment, and it’s nice to see a guy that the fans can come watch and he can do things they can appreciate,” Berhalter said. “That’s what I think he does. But aside from that, you take his work rate and his defensive pressing and those type of elements and he’s a handful."