Escaping the shadows: Federico Higuain in the MLS

Even with all the modern apparel technology, a jersey can still feel heavy when the name on the back means something. Not for Federico Higuain.
Federico Higuain
Art by Sanil Sani

Having been referred to as ‘Stormzy’s girlfriend’ in June 2017, Maya Jama tweeted “I know you mean no harm by it but it’s quite frustrating when you work so hard n so much just to be referred to as someone’s girlfriend :/”. That was followed up by another tweet stating “Especially when you know my name lol but I suppose I just have to work harder then”. The woman who is a successful presenter and model among other things, was rightfully aggrieved at having her own achievements downplayed due to those of someone she is close to. It’s often the case in the world of celebrity that family members or partners have their successes compared. Whoever’s is deemed to be less notable will likely be referred to as the other’s relative, rather than being seen on their own merits. However, people should be able to celebrate each other’s achievements without having them attached.

In November of this year many journalists wrote about how “Gonzalo Higuain’s brother” and penalty shootout heartbreak ruined Wayne Rooney and DC United’s MLS Play Off hopes. Gonzalo Higuain’s brother. Really? For context Federico Higuain had just scored in normal time, extra time and converted in a penalty shootout, getting Columbus Crew through an MLS Cup Play Off match against one of the most in form teams in the league. Call me pedantic, but surely the least that he deserves is to be recognised by his own name rather than being referred to as someone’s brother.

It is highly unlikely that either Higuain sibling saw this, especially as Federico is more likely to pass time with a book than go on social media. The description was likely put across in that way to encourage more clicks, a tactic which has been used by many media outlets, but like Maya he’s surely done enough to be referred to by his own name. This is the case even if his achievements are of course dwarfed by those of a man who’s played in a World Cup final, been Serie A top scorer and won major titles in both Spain and Italy. Allow me to give you a more detailed introduction to the brilliance of Federico ‘Pipa’ Higuain and the impact he’s had on Columbus Crew as well as the MLS.

Having previously played for the likes of Beşiktaş, Club America and Independiente, Federico made the move to MLS in 2012 when he joined the Crew from Atletico Colon. He made an instant impact in Ohio as he won the MLS Newcomer of the Year award, an accolade which has since been won by MVP winners Diego Valeri and Sebastian Giovinco, as well as Miguel Almiron and Zlatan Ibrahimovic- who were on this year’s MVP shortlist. Higuain may not have won the MVP award himself, but since joining the MLS he’s consistently been among the best and most entertaining players in the league.

One indication of this is that he’s among the highest level of company in the 50/50 club. This is comprised of just 20 of the MLS’ best and most productive attacking players down the years, who have 50 goals and 50 assists to their name. Higuain became this exclusive group’s 19th member in March; earning his place when his corner was headed in by Ricardo Clark in a win against DC United.

To show a glimpse of how his mind works, Higuain didn’t rest in the knowledge of his achievement, instead he burst down the left wing and got another assist to ensure his team tasted victory. He may be extravagant on the pitch but he gave an understated interview following his achievement, championing the work ethic of himself and his team mates before thanking all those he’s shared a pitch with at Columbus Crew for helping him reach the milestone.

It’s not only Higuain’s numbers which make him stand out, he gets goals in style. He has a penchant for lobbing unsuspecting goalkeepers, so much so that a few years ago MLS made a compilation video naming him ‘Master of the Chip’. The one minute and 38 seconds show him looping the ball from outside the box, half volleys and the penalty spot with exquisite precision. There may not be an updated version, but he has continued hitting the back of the net in an entertaining fashion.

His career is not yet over, but he has already secured his place among the greatest in Columbus Crew history. He’s sixth for most club appearances, third for goals scored and second for assists. He’s never made the MLS Allstar line up, but that just leads to people both in and outside the club considering him among the MLS’ most underrated players.

Aside from the impressive numbers, when he eventually retires he’ll be remembered for lighting up the pitch while his side had the most testing period in their history off it. There were proposed plans to move the Crew from Columbus to Austin with the view that this could make the club more profitable. However, this was met with considerable opposition. Throughout the 2018 season the #SaveTheCrew campaign battled to ensure their team was staying put, while Higuain and co. were tasked with giving their supporters something to cheer about.

At the beginning of the season there had been unparalleled levels of insecurity for the Crew. By the end of October, #SaveTheCrew had been successful in their campaign, with new investors coming in to keep the club where it was and the team having secured their place in the Play Offs. Alongside a rejuvenated Gyasi Zardes (who bagged 19 regular season goals), captain Wil Trapp and USMNT stopper Zack Steffen, Pipa was one of the driving forces in getting the team into that position, averaging a goal or assist every other game in the regular season.

The club’s fifth placed finish in the Eastern Conference set up the Play Off tie away against Rooney’s DC United- the one which inspired the aforementioned tweet. With the Crew 1-0 down following a Frederic Brillant header, Higuain latched onto a loose ball in the box and forced it into the goal to bring the scores level on the half an hour mark, a goal which eventually forced extra time.

It was in the 96th minute that the Argentine got his second of the game as he got his head to Harrison Afful’s cross, which had been slightly behind him. He somehow redirected it into the bottom corner and out of Bill Hamid’s reach. His delight was clear to see as he ran off to celebrate with his team mates, but DC United substitute Nick DeLeon equalised with a superb half volley just four minutes from the final whistle.

Higuain was undeterred by the set back, stepping up to take the first kick of the ensuing shootout and sending Hamid the wrong way, setting the precedent for his team mates. Rooney was unable to replicate this as his effort was saved by Steffen. In the end the Crew won the penalty shootout 3-2, booking their place in the next round.

Having been the hero already, Federico Higuain was unable to start in the first leg against New York Red Bulls, but when he came on he made his impact. In the 61st minute the ball was played into the Argentine and he made a perfect first time flick to Zardes, who slotted it away for the only goal of the first leg. However, he was unable to get his side through against the Supporters Shield winners, as the Red Bulls won the second leg 3-0. The Crew may not have been finishing the season with the MLS Cup, but Federico certainly made an impact in the post season, which shouldn’t be a surprise as he’s managed a combined nine goals and assists in 14 Play Off matches.

At the age of 34 many would think Federico will be beginning to wind down his footballing career. However, he is still as prevalent as ever for Columbus Crew. It is a true credit to the man and his ability that he has become so loved by everyone associated with the Crew, earning himself many a nickname in the process. Federico Higuain can be introduced as Pipa, Master of the Chip, member of the MLS 50/50 Club or a Columbus Crew legend; all of those are much better than ‘Gonzalo Higuain’s brother’.

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Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.