Orlando City midfielder Cristian Higuita is no stranger to referee discipline. The Colombian has led Orlando in yellow cards in each of his — and the club’s — first two MLS seasons, and since 2015, no one in MLS has accrued more than Higuita’s 23 yellows entering last night’s match at San Jose (10 in 2015, nine in 2016, four already in 2017). The Lions’ midfielder currently finds himself on the brink of a one-game suspension should he pick up that fifth yellow in any of the next three matches.
Higuita has four yellows this season on 16 total tackles, a caution for 25% of his challenges. For his MLS career, he’s seen yellows for 17.5% of his tackles.
Some of the fouls that Higuita commits and receives discipline for are unnecessary. Sometimes — like in his first start of the season vs. New York Red Bulls — he receives a yellow card for dissent with the referee, which is even more unnecessary. It can be frustrating to watch him rack up warnings, but I’ve learned that it’s best not to worry about Higuita’s yellow card count — it’s part of what makes him who he is as a player.
And who he is as a player is important to Orlando City’s success.
Higuita’s tenacity in the defensive midfield immediately made him a standout as a 21-year-old MLS rookie in 2015. In a tandem pairing with Darwin Cerén in former Head Coach Adrian Heath’s two-man central midfield, Higuita emerged as a force and was even reported to have garnered interest from Italian giants AC Milan in 2016.
Now, playing in Head Coach Jason Kreis’ diamond midfield, Higuita has forced his way into the starting XI by upping his work rate and fitness to cover the extra space he needs to cover to shield Orlando City’s back line. Higuita could have been set back by an early season muscular injury, but he made substitute appearances in each of the Lions’ first three games before assuming his role as a regular, starting in six of his seven games since that April 9 bout with NYRB.
Kreis says Higuita’s desire to win the ball back is what makes him an ideal fit for the the 4-4-2 diamond.
“He’s the type of midfielder who is desperate to have the ball in his team and so he gives you that real work rate to try to win it back. And then when we’re on it, he’s a player who wants to combine with players around him.
“So, he’s a player that I think this system is geared for and really kind of forced himself in the lineup through his performances in the training sessions in the weeks leading up to his first start this year.”
When your job is to break up opposition attacks and win the ball back for your side, that desire is a necessity. If it also leads to a handful of yellow cards — and the accompanying one-game suspension here or there — then so be it; to take away Higuita’s aggression would be to take away what makes him...him.
Along with his ability to get forward and contribute in the attack and his reliable passing (he led City in passing completion percentage in 2015 and is tied for the team high with 87.5% this year) that lets him get his attacking urges out from time to time, the aggressive, fearless style is pivotal to Higuita successfully carrying out his role as a safeguard for City’s back four.
Even the best in the world in the holding midfield role tend to accumulate fouls and cards. For perspective, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté — the Premier League’s Player of the Year, who is widely regarded for his ball-winning ability and break-up play in midfield — is averaging the same number of fouls per match (1.6) for the English champions as Higuita is for Orlando this season, and Kanté saw himself earn a yellow card suspension within the first half of the 2016-17 Premier League season. To an extent, it’s the nature of the position.
Higuita may find relief from MLS’s Good Behavior Incentive, which would reduce his official yellow card tally to by one if he manages three straight games without another caution. But if Higuita stays true to form, he’ll likely pick up that yellow at some point in the next three matches, and he’ll get that one-game suspension.
It may prove frustrating for fans, but it’ll be OK, because he’ll be right back after that, well rested and ready to bust up opposition play as he always is, helping out his defenders and freeing up his attacking teammates to do what they do while making life difficult for other sides.