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Cristian Higuita is Making the Most of What Could Be His Last Chance in Orlando

The last remaining original MLS Lion has come on strong in recent weeks for James O’Connor.

Dan MacDonald, The Mane Land

Colombian midfielder Cristian Higuita may be the last remaining link to the original MLS Orlando City roster, but he’s never fully been able to establish his place on the team despite hanging around for nearly five years. He’s always had the talent and potential, but he just hasn’t quite been able to sustain whatever positive play he’s shown in the past. That might finally be changing.

The 25-year-old from Cali, Colombia has struggled to get on the field this season, but the recent crowded fixture schedule was an opportunity for Higuita, and he’s made the most of it. Playing in two of the last three matches, Higuita has excelled in Orlando’s midfield. He still has some inexplicably bad passes in the offensive third of the pitch, but he seems to have eliminated some of the more preventable mistakes, as well as the reckless abandon with which he used to pile up yellow cards.

In his last two matches, Higuita — who reached 100 competitive appearances with City on Sunday — has completed 91 of 106 passes (85.8%), including an outstanding 60-of-66 in the 5-1 win against FC Cincinnati on Sunday. He was four of six on long ball accuracy, but was 0/2 at Atlanta and connected on all four of those in four attempts in Sunday’s home game.

Defensively, Higuita recorded a team-high four tackles against Cincinnati, along with two interceptions and a clearance, and committed only one foul. At Atlanta, the Colombian finished with two tackles and an interception and committed two fouls. He did not pick up a yellow card in either match.

On the offensive end, Higuita attempted two shots — although neither was on target — over the two matches, made one key pass, and recorded three successful dribbles.

While the offensive numbers aren’t exactly scintillating, that’s not Higuita’s primary role. The Colombian is there to help control the midfield and make it difficult for opponents to break through Orlando’s line in front of the defense. Going the other way, he’s supposed to help shuttle the ball from the defense or other midfielders around him to the team’s more threatening attackers and to provide an outlet for those players when an attack can’t find a way through.

Playing as he has in recent weeks, the obvious question many would ask is: Why hasn’t he been playing up until now? It seems as though Higuita simply hadn’t earned the confidence of the coaching staff that he knew his role and could perform it at the necessary level.

“Cristian’s a very talented player and we’ve had to work on a few things first to try to make sure there’s good understanding of what the requirement is,” Head Coach James O’Connor said after Sunday’s win. “But since he’s come into the team, he’s been excellent. I think when you look at his quality of play both the games it’s been very, very good.”

Higuita has always had both supporters and detractors among the Orlando City fan base. And that’s fair, considering he has been an inconsistent player throughout his MLS career so far. But the Colombian has also had to learn the systems of three different coaches during his tenure and that’s only after acclimating to life in a new country and a new culture.

At 25, Higuita was no doubt running out of chances to become successful with Orlando City. His total compensation last year was in excess of half a million dollars, at $581,662.67. That’s a lot of money to spend on a defensive midfielder who can’t get on the field. It’s even a lot of money for the production that Higuita has given in his last two appearances. He was subbed off in the 77th minute of both of those games, which were only his second and third appearances of the 2019 MLS season.

Higuita has been on pace to have by far his fewest starts and appearances since he joined Orlando City in January of 2015, when he and Carlos Rivas were bought from Deportivo Cali with an eye on developing for future sale. His career low for appearances in an MLS season is 21, which happened in both 2016 and 2018. His fewest starts came in 2016, when he was in the XI only 16 times — just fewer than half the team’s games. But through the team’s first 10 games of 2019, Higuita had played only once — a 69-minute substitute appearance against the Montreal Impact when Will Johnson left to undergo concussion protocol.

In his 97 MLS matches, Higuita has compiled six goals and six assists. Four of those six goals came last year when he had an unexpected offensive surge that included three goals in a five-game span from April 29 to May 26. Three of his six assists came during the 2017 season (and two of those came in back-to-back games in late April and early May). He doesn’t seem to be the kind of player who will ever put up big offensive stats, but he doesn’t need to be.

If Higuita’s recent performances continue, and if he can build on those while working his way up to full 90-minute fitness, the midfielder might finally earn the regular starting spot that he’s never been able to hold onto during his MLS career to date.

“The challenge for Cristian is he needs to maintain that,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s the big thing that we want to drive is that you earn your place in the team and once you get in the team it’s down to you to stay in the team. Whether it’s Cristian or whoever it is, once you get into the team, stay in the team. And your performance level will dictate that.”