America falls for Higuain (no, not that one)

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Big name, big legacy, big expectations – and Colombus's new Designated Player is living up to the hopes, says Kris Heneage

When people begin discussing a player as a potential candidate for the MLS Most Valuable Player award, you can be assured his impact has been instantaneous. Take, as a case in point, Federico Higuaín.

The older brother of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo and son of Jorge, he began his career with River Plate, but never quite made the necessary impact. After leaving in 2007 he spent time in Turkey with Besiktas and Mexico with Club America before returning to his homeland for spells with a trio of clubs including Independiente.

Some said that famous surname had earned him contracts, but it also seemed destined to overshadow him. An impressive loan spell with Nueva Chicago before leaving River had often been used as evidence of his talent, but as his career progressed, the 27-year-old was still looking for a home that provided continuity.

That’s when Columbus discovered him. Reportedly paying his club Colón $650,000 to relocate him to Ohio, the Crew signed him to the much-coveted Designated Player contract – making him only the third DP in the club’s history.

Although the move surprised some, there was little spontaneity in his acquisition. "We had our eye on Higuaín for quite some time," insists coach Robert Warzycha. "He's a fast forward who played successfully in a very good league. He's very opportunistic and a good finisher, and he can play as a winger or as a second forward."

Those sentiments were echoed by club president Mark McCullers, who spoke passionately about his delight at completing the deal. “On behalf of our club, we are extremely excited to bring another world class player to Crew fans and to the Columbus market.”

Promising talk, but not every much-trumpeted DP has succeeded. A grace period is often required to settle in and become accustomed to the different style of play; busting the wage structure means a fierce spotlight as people judge if you’re worth the inflated salary. Just under three months into his Columbus tenure, few would contest that Higuaín seems a sound if not shrewd investment.  

After being an unused sub in his first three games, it took him just 13 minutes of action to provide his first MLS assist, a delicately lofted ball setting Eddie Gavan away to score. In five starts, Higuaín has provided six assists and three goals of his own, including a splendid pair of free-kicks in his side’s 4-3 win over the New England Revolution last month.

Columbus have lost just one of their last five outings with Higuaín in the side, his devilish deliveries causing problems for many an MLS back-line. Many have cited Higuaín, along with Costa Rican Jairo Arrieta, as the catalysts for the Crew’s fantastic recent form – something the stats appear to concur with.

Providing a dynamism in attack, Higuaín has been likened to his compatriot and former Crew player Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Quite how he feels about being compared to a notable Boca Juniors player remains unknown, but his delivery and creativity has transformed the fortunes of a previously goal-shy Columbus – and he doesn’t look like stopping.

His form has even been recognised by the league, earning him MLS Player of the Week in rounds 25 and 26. When trying to decipher just why Higuaín has taken so gracefully to MLS, his manager may provide the insight: attitude.

“I sense from him what he is passing on to the team,” says Warzycha. “When he starts a game, he believes we are going to win. Not 'if', not 'maybe', but definitely.

“In Philadelphia at half-time I told him that this was a tough, physical game and if he didn’t have the legs, I’d take him out. The game was tied. He said, ‘You can take me off when we score a goal. We’re going to win.’”

Often, confidence can become arrogance, something Higuaín seems self-aware enough to avoid.

"I have to be smart," Higuaín said recently. "This is just the beginning of my time with the Columbus Crew. I need to keep working. I need to keep trying to understand the players on my team and the players need to understand me. I'm trying to do what's best for the team based on what the coaching staff tells me to do."

And as many elevate Higuaín as the fulcrum of his club’s success, he quickly diverts the attention to his teammates. "This is teamwork," Higuaín insists. "It's not one or two individuals doing something. We need everybody ready. From what I've seen so far, I think the team is playing very well – even when I watched [the Crew] against LA. That's what is most important.

"If we play as a team, we're going to be successful. If we play as individuals, there's going to be trouble."

With Columbus definite contenders for play-off spot in the Eastern Conference, Higuaín is likely to be a crucial in just how far his team advance this season. Having enjoyed something of a nomadic existence to date, he should appreciate the longevity of stay Columbus may provide – allowing him to write his own legacy, separate from the name on his back.