Federico Higuain continues to prove his mettle as one of Major League Soccer’s top central playmakers.
The Argentinian provided two assists in Columbus Crew SC‘s 2-1 victory over visiting FC Dallas on Saturday night in front of 18,379 at MAPFRE Stadium. With the result, the club is now unbeaten in its last four with three of those resulting in wins. Coupled with a Chicago Fire loss to Minnesota United, Crew SC also moves to third in the Eastern Conference standings.
Federico Higuain Assist Brace Helps Vault Columbus Crew SC to Third in the East
After reverting to the 4-2-3-1 in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the LA Galaxy, Gregg Berhalter kept the side in that shape on Saturday. The starting XI remained the same with one exception. Jukka Raitala made his 18th start at left back, replacing Waylon Francis who suffered a hamstring injury against LA and came off after 33 minutes.
This matchup had all the makings of a contrast of styles. Crew SC’s identity centers around their possession-oriented style that focuses on build-up play out of the back. FC Dallas, on the other hand, tends to counteract this by sitting deep, absorbing pressure and trying to create chances in transition. For the most part, that’s what transpired in Columbus.
It led to the team’s effectively canceling each other out around goal in the first half. Both teams managed a mere two shots, with none of them forcing a save out of the opposing goalkeepers. And true to form, Columbus enjoyed a 60-40 edge in possession even if it wasn’t exactly purposeful through the first 45.
That changed almost right out of the gate as soon as referee Allen Chapman blew the whistle to start the second stanza. Five minutes in, Higuain threaded a diagonal ball towards an overlapping Hector Jimenez. He then one-timed a cross into the box towards Ola Kamara who tapped it past Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez for his 14th of the year.
Higuain wasn’t done creating for his teammates. On a free kick right near the touchline in the 71st minute, the Argentinian number ten slotted in a perfect ball that bypassed the entire Dallas defense. It found Jonathan Mensah who ran in towards the far post and blasted a header into the net to double the Columbus advantage.
For Higuain, his two helpers moved him past club legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto for fourth all-time in assists among Crew SC players.
“You see, when he’s on the field, he’s a special player and he can make things happen,” Berhalter told the Columbus Dispatch. “As he starts to reach 100 percent fitness level, he’s going to be more impactful.”
Though the club did concede once, a 78th minute header from Walker Zimmerman off a Javier Morales corner, the defense remained stout the rest of the way. Protecting leads had been an issue earlier in the year. Even as recently as a week ago, they let a 1-0 lead slip away against Orlando City SC and settled for a draw.
But sharing the points on road can be construed as a success. Giving away leads at home, on the other hand, are not. And so preserving a win in Columbus despite giving up a late goal is testament to the improvement on the back line.
Mensah spearheaded that effort on Saturday. In addition to his first ever Crew SC goal, the Ghanaian center back registered two tackles and nine clearances. Though Mensah’s received a fair bit of criticism for his play at times this year, he’s slowly but surely proving to be a reliable cog on the back line.
The reversion to a four-man back line from three at the back hasn’t fazed him either. That versatility combined with being able to seamlessly adjust can only help moving forward.
“We have to get used to playing two systems,” Mensah said. “Playing against other teams, you just have to adjust and (be able to play) other systems and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Higuain wasn’t the only player who assisted on Crew SC goals Saturday. Jimenez’s incisive cross from the right hand side precipitated Kamara’s tally on the night. Throughout his 77 minutes on the pitch, his quality as a two-way fullback was on full display.
“I think he was fantastic defensively,” Kamara said of Jimenez. “Nothing happened on his side. And he comes in and gives me an assist too.”
“It’s very important because if the opponent has to be scared of the right back and left back and in the middle with all the attackers, the danger’s coming from everywhere and that’s very hard to defend.”
Through it all, Columbus appears to be peaking at the right time. Even though every team in the Eastern Conference has varying numbers of games in hand on Crew SC, they’re holding up their end of the bargain. It’s for that reason they’ve vaulted from the playoff bubble to possibly hosting a knockout round in the span of a month.
The Black and Gold are off next week for the international window, even though eight MLS teams aren’t as fortunate. Their next match takes place on Sunday, September 10th when they welcome Sporting KC to town, their third straight game at home. It’s the club’s only appearance on ESPN this season, with kickoff commencing at 1 PM ET.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications