Cristian Higuita has been a staple in Orlando City’s midfield since he joined the Lions for their inaugural season in 2015. But with the change of schemes in the transition from Adrian Heath to Jason Kreis, Higuita was asked to play a slightly different role in his third year.
Rather than playing as the deepest midfielder, anchoring the team and acting as the fulcrum connecting the defense and midfield, Higuita was tasked with adding some offense to his game.
Until he was sidelined with a calf injury late in the season, Higuita was a fixture in Orlando’s midfield, missing only two matches due to suspension through yellow card accumulation. His 1,554 minutes this year is a slight improvement on last year’s numbers but still almost 700 fewer than his 2015 numbers. He matched his Orlando high with 26 appearances but only made 18 starts.
Even in fewer minutes, moving further up the pitch resulted in a career high three assists for the young Colombian. He also set personal records for shots taken (14) and shots on goal (2), and kept up his regular passing clip at 87.6%. The problem for Higuita is that he did not have the offensive impact of fellow central midfielders Yoshimar Yotun or Will Johnson and his normally stout defense fell off a bit without being the shield in front of the back line — although he did move back to play more of the No. 6 role in the run-up before his injury.
Higuita has long been synonymous with cautions and ejections, but he managed to make it through 2017 without seeing red and was only shown eight yellow cards — his fewest total in Orlando. The flip side is that his average tackles have declined sharply over the seasons from 4.3 per game in 2015 to 3.7 last year and down to just 2.1 this year (though that number was good enough for fourth on the team). Cristian still tied Cyle Larin and Leo Pereira for the team high in fouls per game with 1.6, which is a slight decrease from last season for the Colombian.
Because of the slight position switch, it’s difficult to directly compare Higuita’s production this year with his previous seasons. The majority of these changes were to be expected by taking a more offensive spot on the field.
Higuita had the biggest impact as a substitute this season when Orlando fought back to draw the Columbus Crew in August. Will Johnson was forced to exit the match in the 32nd minute and Higuita took over. He misplaced just one pass over the next hour while making four tackles and 10 recoveries in a classic Cristian Higuita defensive performance.
It was Higuita’s most complete game of the year as he set up two shots on the night. While it was Giles Barnes that finished from a tight angle, Higuita potentially made the best single play of his Orlando career to set up the equalizer:
If we can see more of this Higuita in 2018, it would mean big things for Orlando’s midfield.
Final 2017 Grade
The Mane Land staff decided on a final grade of 5.5 for Cristian Higuita. While the Colombian failed to make an impact like he did in 2015, it was an admirable attempt to add another level to his game this season. He eased up on his fouls, stayed out of suspension trouble for the most part, and was a key piece of the midfield rotation for much of the season.
Higuita’s future with the club is directly tied to his role. He has fallen down the depth chart on the sides of the diamond thanks to the introduction of Yotun and only received a few minutes in his more naturally defensive position at the base. Whether or not he can function there consistently enough to start remains to be seen; he has not shown the willingness to direct and organize the midfield around him which is crucial in the diamond. If Kreis is looking for another Kyle Beckerman, Higuita likely isn’t that guy. He should get a shot to prove himself as the starter in defensive midfield but, all things considered, there is the chance that Orlando City could cash in if a suitor from abroad comes in with a big enough offer.