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Cristian Higuita delivers strong performance for Orlando City

Orlando City forward Dom Dwyer (center) celebrates with defender Mohamed El-Munir (13) and forward Stefano Pinho (29) after scoring against the Philadelphia Union during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

CHESTER, Penn. — Cristian Higuita is taking the next step for Orlando City.

At times during preseason, it was easy to spot the midfielder.

The fourth-year player could be found training to the side, alone. Coach Jason Kreis said Higuita wasn’t injured, just not up to the level of fitness he wanted.

So Higuita worked to change that. He met with Kreis and the club’s coaches, Kreis made his expectations known and since then, Higuita has worked to deliver. Much like last season, when Higuita worked to ensure he’d have a place on the pitch in Kreis’ 4-4-2 diamond formation, he put in the time to make sure he’d have a spot with a club that has a few talented midfielders.

Plus, the one-on-one conversation with Kreis helped, Higuita said.

“I’ve been working really hard,” Higuita told Pro Soccer USA through a translator. “I feel like I’m 100 percent fit. I’ve talked to the coaching staff and to Jason, we’ve agreed I’m going to get opportunities.”

Higuita said the conversation was enlightening.

“We had a really good conversation,” he said. “I learned a lot about him. I have to work really hard to earn my spot. I’ve been here three years working really hard to earn my spot.”

Higuita came on in the 29th minute of Orlando City’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union after right back RJ Allen went down with an injury. Defensive midfielder Will Johnson shifted to right back and Higuita paired with Yoshi Yotún for the rest of the match.

The move worked. Higuita’s passing accuracy was at 94.7 percent – the highest on the team among players with at least 10 passes. He wasn’t booked, only conceded one foul and had two solid tackles in his 61 minutes of play.

Higuita told Pro Soccer USA he’s been working on the offensive aspects of his game.

“Not only to be able to defend — everybody knows I can chase back and do my work defensively — but I can also go out and help the team come out and attack,” he said prior to the team’s match against Philadelphia. “I really want to improve that part on the offensive side.”

Chris Mueller, who scored an unassisted goal in Friday’s match to make the score 2-0, said Higuita and Yotún helped facilitate the Lions’ attack.

“Higuita coming in, him and Yoshi just moved the ball so well, it kind of made it easy to open up the space and the gaps for us,” he said.”

After Friday’s match, Kreis said Higuita has lived up to the conversation the two had during preseason training.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “No doubt about it. I’m a big fan of Cristian Higuita and have been. Oftentimes, we have to deliver very honest messages to players about exactly what they need to do if they want to take the next step and he’s done nothing short of it. Really pleased for him tonight.”

Kljestan moves up

Sacha Kljestan got his second assist of the season lofting the ball over defenders to find Dwyer for a goal. It was his 86th career assist — and his first to Dom Dwyer as a member of Orlando City — which moved him into a tie with Andy Williams for ninth-most regular season assists in MLS history.

Allen to be evaluated

As of Saturday evening, there was no update on Allen’s injury. He first went down in the 21st minute of Saturday’s match, got up and tried to play through it, then went back down eight minutes later. He went down for the second time trying to keep up with Philadelphia Union winger David Accam.

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