Somehow, Cristian Higuita has remained Orlando City's best-kept secret, despite his stellar play, which has continued to trend upward for much of the season. With a relentless motor and a competitive fire to match, Higuita has been winning over the Orlando City faithful in droves.
While he's always putting forth a stellar effort -- especially since moving into a more consistent role in the defensive midfield, following Amobi Okugo's fall from grace -- he's done so next to two very different players in El Salvador captain Darwin Ceren and Servando Carrasco. The latter was, you'll recall, the return from the midseason Okugo trade with Sporting Kansas City.
How do Higuita's performances with Ceren stack up against his work with Carrasco?*
*Statistics include MLS games between 5/17 (coronation of Higuita as starting DM) through 9/23, with the following exceptions:
- 7/11 vs. FC Dallas. Harrison Heath started, Okugo subbed on at 45'
- 8/5 vs. Toronto FC. Carrasco, Ceren and Higuita all started in a modified formation.
- 8/15 vs. Seattle Sounders. Carrasco, Ceren and Higuita all started in a modified formation.
Summary: Since stepping on the field, Cristian has been one of Major League Soccer's most accurate passers. A keen understanding of Inchy's system allows him to seamlessly distribute the ball throughout the midfield, presently ranked eighth in the league among regularly appearing players, with an 86.9% completion rate.
With Ceren: These two have had exceptional chemistry since seeing regular time together, so it should come as no surprise that Higuita hasn't posted worse than an 80% passing rate when starting next to the El Salvadorian. That "off" night came in a 1-1 result against a firm Real Salt Lake defense that has allowed fewer goals than all but three Eastern Conference teams. Oh, and Kaká was sent off that night in the first half.
His best performance was a masterpiece of an effort against Montreal, Completing 97.7% of his 44 attempts, including a perfect 4/4 from distance. His work with Ceren was impressive, but not enough to overcome the Impact, as the Lions fell 2-0 in Canada.
With Carrasco: Higuita and Carrasco don't click quite as well, but that hasn't much hampered Higuita's passing touch. In the disaster that was the 5-0 loss to Toronto FC -- when the officials were passing out bookings like NYCFC passes out false hope -- Cristian was arguably the lone bright spot of the match. It was his most accurate performance with this pairing, hitting 92.7% of his passes, while trying to figure out why the ball kept finding its way into the back of his own net.
His worst game of the year? Servando was his running mate when he put up a 67.7% rate on just 31 passes against the New England Revolution. After receiving a yellow, Higuita was pulled in the 78th minute, as the game fell out of reach.
Edge: Darwin Ceren
Summary: Impressive as his passing may be, Higuita has proven to be among the elite in MLS when it comes to attacking the ball. One of just three players league-wide averaging at least four tackles per game, his work in the midfield has been a huge reason for Orlando City's playoff contention. Those four per game are a little low when compared to his work as strictly a DM -- he spent some time on the right wing and off the bench early in the season.
With Ceren: Cristian has always shown an aggressiveness on defense that's tough to top, but Ceren does his best to match the former Deportivo Cali man's intensity, ranking eighth in the league in tackles himself. In just his second start with Darwin, Higuita racked up seven tackles against the San Jose Earthquakes, helping to keep Chris Wondolowski from scoring in free play and preserving the 1-1 draw on a night when Brek Shea was shown a red card.
In the third outing against Columbus Crew, he posted just one tackle, looking to avoid the wrath of the officials in a runaway 5-2 win in which Higuita scored his first MLS goal.
Average: 4.27 tackles per game
With Carrasco: Since Carrasco has come on board, we've seen Cristian attack even more aggressively than we were accustomed to, posting his two biggest tackling totals as a Lion with this pairing. Setting a new season high with eight against Carrasco's former team, Sporting Kansas City, Higuita followed it up the only way he knows how -- #DefyExpectations. In the very next outing, he mauled the Chicago Fire to the tune of 11 (!) tackles.
He did manage just two against Philadelphia the first night the two played together. We've seen significant increases since they've started playing together, and it's hard to point out why. It could be Higuita feeling safe running amok in the midfield with a proven MLS veteran to help cover. It could be Ceren stopping play with his own elite level tackling before Cristian gets the chance. Regardless, he's been putting up outlandish numbers next to Servando.
Average: 5.6 tackles per game
Edge: Servando Carrasco
Summary: A player rating is an overall score given by a source to try to encapsulate their performance with just one statistic. Naturally, they should be taken with a grain of salt, but they are generally effective in ballparking a player's performance relative to the other players in the match.
For the purposes of this comparison, we will be using ratings from WhoScored.com.
With Ceren: Higuita has been very, very good with Darwin. His lowest graded game comes in at a 6.44 in the match against Montreal, in which he completed 97% of his attempts. He doesn't know how to have a bad game when working in the middle with Ceren.
He's had plenty of great performances with Ceren, starting with the 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy, in which he graded at an 8.27. His best effort with Darwin, however, came in the 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids on June 24, in which he delivered a smooth assist to help seal the winning effort.
With Carrasco: Higuita's worst grade came shortly after their introductions, when Toronto FC ran away with a 5-0 win in which Cristian was scored at a 6.23. Believe it or not, this was the highest score on the team, showing that even on the worst of days, Higuita can look head and shoulders above the rest.
Against the Fire on Sept. 19, Higuita was awarded his first WhoScored Man of the Match -- not coincidentally -- the same match he set an MLS career high for tackles with 11. He owned the midfield next to Carrasco in this 1-0 victory over the struggling Chicago Fire.
Edge: Darwin Ceren
So Who is the Better Fit?
While not drastically different, this is the tale of two different Cristian Higuitas. When paired with Darwin Ceren, we see he plays a more controlled game, evidenced by the passing completion difference of almost 3%, yet with Servando Carrasco, we see an aggressiveness to his defense that is unparalleled league wide -- his 5.6 tackles per game blow the rest of the league out of the water.
What's your choice?