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The Cristian Higuita Effect: How Orlando City's Midfield Eraser Has Been Missed

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Orlando City has had a difficult time retaining possession through the midfield in its last two matches. The Lions have also been without Cristian Higuita. Those two things are related.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The recent run of play put on by Orlando City appears to be somewhat lacking in terms of retaining possession through the midfield. This allows opposing teams to move the ball easier in the Lions' attacking end and makes it even harder for Orlando City to counter and create offense on the other end. Orlando has also been missing one of the more important cogs in its midfield play in Cristian Higuita, which is directly related to the aforementioned factors.

Higuita didn't feature in Orlando City's season opener, a 2-2 draw against Real Salt Lake, nor has he been in the lineup against the Philadelphia Union (a 2-1 loss) or the New England Revolution (2-2 draw). In matches where Higuita has been in Adrian Heath's starting XI, opponents have been held to only two goals in three matches, with one of those coming right at the end of an eventual 4-1 win over Portland. Conversely, opponents have managed to score six in the three matches he's been out.

Higuita made his 2016 Orlando City debut against the Chicago Fire, and it was a night to forget for the Colombian defensive midfielder. Higuita's passing seemed off and that rust contributed to Orlando City squandering an opportunity to take three points from the visitors, despite playing for more than an hour with a man advantage after the Fire went down to 10 men.

Here we have a look at Higuita's distribution on the night.

Although Higuita only missed on eight of his passes, the majority of them were opportunities moving forward that derailed Orlando City's momentum and were sometimes too close to defenders on his touch, which led to balls being scooped away by the Fire's back line. But, looking back at Orlando City's half of the pitch, Higuita continued being a rock and helped prevent an embarrassing upset at home by a short-handed team.

In Higuita's next match, Orlando City's 1-0 victory over New York City FC, it wasn't a pretty victory for OCSC, but it was a game where Higuita made his presence felt all over the pitch and disrupted the potent offense of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and the man voted by his peers as the most overrated player in MLS, Mix Diskerud.

Higuita only missed four passes. That's it. Were it not for Tommy Redding having the match of his life, Higuita would have been our Man of the Match. It can't be understated how vital the presence of a player like Higuita is on the overall play of Orlando City. His play isn't pretty and it's not going to make for beautiful skills and highlight videos like Cyle Larin and Kaká, but the intangible effect he has on dictating the pace of the match and providing the much-needed possession allows for those lovely finishes we like seeing here.

On to the best match of the season for Orlando City thus far, the 4-1 drubbing of the Portland Timbers. Higuita's impact was directly felt on the attack, as he actually started the counter that led to Kaká's goal and was as solid as ever in his defensive role.

Yes, there is a bit more red to this chart than the one against NYCFC, but personally, I like this game more from him in his role. His contributions in both the attack and on defense make him an invaluable asset to have in terms of controlling and dictating the pace. This match was certainly defined by Orlando City making its presence felt and directing the measure of action throughout.

Higuita picked up a groin injury prior to the Philadelphia match and has not featured since. Recently, Heath has declared that he's "hopeful" that Higuita will be ready to go Sunday against the league's cellar dwellers, the New York Red Bulls. What remains to be seen is -- should he be fit enough to play -- if he'll simply start the match from the bench and come on late as a substitute, or if he'll make a full comeback and crack the starting lineup to resume his duties alongside Cerén against a talented NYRB midfield.