Last year, Orlando City benefited from the emergence of two of its defensive midfielders, Cristian Higuita and Darwin Cerén. Coming into the 2016 season, there was a lot of pressure for the both of them to repeat their performances from the previous year, and both have taken that responsibility to heart. While they may have each gotten off to a slow start to the season, their most recent performance in New York helped them get back on track to last season's form.
"Before the (NYCFC) game, I got into Darwin and Cristian a little bit and spoke about how I expect them to be a bit more tenacious, getting around the field and they both gave a great display of tackling and understanding when to close the ball," Head Coach Adrian Heath said on this past week's Orlando City Insider Show. "Cristian Higuita was more like his old self on the weekend."
Cerén picked up a red card in first-half stoppage time of the season opener against Real Salt Lake, missing the Chicago Fire match due to suspension as a result. Higuita, who was suspended for the opener due to being sent off at Philadelphia in the 2015 regular season finale, made his season debut against the Fire in Week 2 but did not look sharp. Both players heeded Heath's admonishments and turned in virtuoso performances at Yankee Stadium in Week 3.
Higuita, 22, was signed on Jan. 26, 2015, from Deportivo Cali in Colombia. He made 25 starts and 26 total appearances in 2015 with Orlando City, scoring one goal and assisting on two others. The 5-foot-9 defensive midfielder played 2,228 minutes in his first MLS season and was named to the MLS Team of the Week twice. He led the Lions in passing percentage (87%) and finished second in Major League Soccer in tackles per game (4.3). He scored his first (and only) goal on Aug. 5, 2015 in a 5-2 drubbing of the Columbus Crew.
Cerén, 26, was a holdover from Orlando City's days in the USL, after beginning his career in his home country with Juventud Independiente. After scoring 15 goals in 79 games with Juventud Independiente, Cerén joined Orlando City for the 2014 USL season, scoring twice in 23 matches, showing enough to get an MLS contract when the team made the jump.
The 5-foot-10 captain of El Salvador's national team, like his Colombian midfield partner, started 25 matches in 2015 and appeared in 26. He scored two goals and assisted on two others on 29 shots. Accuracy was a bit of a problem, as only seven of those 29 attempts were on goal. Cerén ranked 11th in MLS in passing completion percentage (86.5%) and tackles per game (3).
He scored his first goal in a 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy on May 17, 2015, and the other came in the same win over Columbus in which Higuita scored. He finished the season by being named FutbolMLS.com's Latino del Año and made MLS Team of the Week once.
Speaking again about both of his defensive midfielders, Heath said on the Orlando City Insider Show they are "incredibly difficult to play against. Both young, both aggressive, great energy, good tacklers. Obviously, the nature of the way they play, occasionally they get the odd yellow and, in their case, the odd red, but it's a parcel of their game."
In that last match against NYCFC, both Higuita and Cerén finished with a combined 18 tackles, eight interceptions and a single yellow card (Higuita). With the amount of pressure that NYCFC was putting on throughout the game, both defensive midfielders came up with clutch tackles and overall defensive pressure to help maintain the shutout.
If Higuita and Cerén, along with Antonio Nocerino (when he's fully match fit), can bunker down the defensive midfield, Orlando may boast one of Major League Soccer's most potent casts in central midfield.