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Cristian Higuita Earned Back His Starting Spot with Display vs. New York Red Bulls

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The Colombian midfielder isn’t making team selection decisions easy on Jason Kreis.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Cristian Higuita may have had his most complete performance in a purple shirt in Sunday’s win against the New York Red Bulls. He’s already got plenty, as he was a dominant participant in Orlando City’s midfield pairing over the past two seasons, but Sunday was a new look for the Colombian in a slightly new role, and he flourished.

While recovering from his adductor injury, he was relegated to bit-part roles through Orlando’s first three matches; he brought energy and enthusiasm to central midfield whenever he was brought on, but with limited minutes he never really had the impact fans are used to. It’s impossible to say whether the choice to leave Higuita on the bench was entirely related to his injury or somewhat tactical, but with the long-awaited introduction of the diamond midfield on Sunday, Head Coach Jason Kreis has opened the door for Higuita to become a key contributor once more.

Under former manager Adrian Heath, Higuita was generally the more reserved in central midfield, allowing Darwin Cerén to push forward while he shielded the back line with some clutch diving tackles that earned him a reputation as a rising star around the league.

Since Kreis has arrived, however, he’s given Higuita a more offensive role.

When paired with Antonio Nocerino last season, Higuita was the one surging forward and trying to connect the midfield lines. It was unusual compared to how he was deployed under Heath, but with the departure of Cerén, there was a new need for a box-to-box central mid late last year. Nocerino has developed into the holding role under Kreis and it has put Higuita in a tight spot.

In a traditional box-to-box role, he takes a back seat to newcomer Will Johnson and Kreis obviously prefers Nocerino over Cristian as his No 6. So if Kreis decides to revert back to the flat 4-4-2, Higuita likely becomes the odd man out. It’s not a new revelation at all, Higuita taking a back seat in Orlando was key to some trade speculation around the league that he could be on his way out of Central Florida.

But with the way he played on Sunday, he might have forced the head coach’s hand.

Higuita was a force on both ends of the pitch, making his classic diving challenges to stonewall the Red Bulls and also carrying the ball forward and using a surprising amount of skill on the ball to evade the opposition. He played like a true box-to-box midfielder, something that we haven’t seen from him so far during his time in Orlando. His defensive dominance was to be expected with a pair of tackles, eight recoveries, and even a trio of clearances from Orlando City’s penalty area. While he won’t receive the accolades of Jonathan Spector’s goal-line clearance or Joe Bendik’s saves, Higuita was a key participant in the clean sheet.

But the Colombian also made waves in New York’s half and carrying the ball out of defense. Even when surrounded by Red Bulls, Higuita was able to use an uncustomary amount of skill on the ball and won four of his five fouls in attacking areas.

With no lost dribbles according to Opta and an 88% pass-completion rate, including several probing balls in dangerous areas, he seemingly matched his defensive output on offense. He not only justified Kreis’ decision to move to a diamond and start him over Giles Barnes, but he also proved that it should be the case moving forward.

Orlando has not seen so much domination by its central midfielders with the flatter 4-4-2 this year and the diamond plays to the strengths of all of the club’s midfielders. Will Johnson, Servando Carrasco, Matias Perez Garcia, Kaká, Luis Gil, and Nocerino all have natural places in the diamond; deploying Kaká, MPG, or Barnes wide takes them away from the center of the park where they excel. But without two midfielders with the ability to play both ways effectively and cover a lot of ground, the diamond fails; Higuita and Johnson are the keys to its success.

And there are definitely some reasons why Higuita was taken off for Giles with 20 minutes to play and Orlando holding a lead and looking to play defensively. The biggest negative was giving the ball up in dangerous positions. Two of his four misplaced passes were in Orlando’s own end and gave New York opportunities to get level. This is just a week after a poorly placed pass gave the Columbus Crew a breakaway and their second goal in City’s only defeat of the season so far.

With the team relying on its defense to hold onto leads late in matches, Kreis can’t have one of his engines giving the ball away in his own half. Playing the diamond is a lot more responsibility than Higuita is used to as a shield for the back line, so he needs to prove that he can take care of possession.

The other red flag from this weekend’s match was his booking for dissent in the 61st minute. Higuita has a trail of yellow cards following him through his career and it’s not exactly comforting to see him shown a caution for mouthing off to referee Ismail Elfath after he was whistled for a foul where he dove in with two feet. For a team already hindered by multiple injuries, having a player consistently at risk for cards doesn’t help. If Higuita needs to be substituted before the end of every match so that he doesn’t risk getting his second yellow or worse, it handicaps Kreis’ tactical subs.

So while his game may not be perfect — and it shouldn’t be, he just turned 23 — he’s given Kreis a lot to think about with the formation of the team. Can the gaffer afford to bench a second in-form box-to-box player in Higuita to accommodate another attacker like Barnes? It becomes even more complex when Kaká finally gets back into playing shape. It’s a testament to the wealth of talent Kreis has built up in the midfield; Orlando City finally has options and legitimate depth across the board.

The decisions won’t be easy, but Higuita has certainly made his case.