After spending three months on the sidelines, Orlando City midfielder Cristian Higuita is determined to make the last four games of the season count.
When he started for the Lions on Saturday, it was the midfielder’s first time playing at Exploria Stadium since June 1. After suffering a hamstring injury, he spent more than 10 weeks off the field, rehabbing away from the team and then slowly re-integrating into practice.
It took three additional weeks of contact training with the team before coach James O’Connor felt Higuita was ready to play in a match. For Higuita, the worst part was feeling helpless as he stayed stuck on the sidelines, watching the team from home during road matches and sitting in a suite for home games.
“It was difficult watching the team play on the pitch and having to watch us lose a couple games from the outside,” Higuita said through a translator. “Now that I’m back, it feels good. I have some control and can help us win.”
Higuita brings a different type of pace to the midfield, adding a level of quickness that will be vital during the final four games of the season. Perhaps the most important aspect of his quickness lies in his ability to pull the trigger on passes, threading the ball through flashes of space.
O’Connor recognized the importance of Higuita’s return, but he had to balance that against the risk of re-injury if he was rushed too quickly. He chose to bring the midfielder back for his first 45 minutes on the road last week in San Jose, pointing to that as the only positive from the team’s 3-0 loss to the Earthquakes.
On Saturday, O’Connor challenged Higuita to play higher up the field, moving him into a central attacking midfielder position that required him to pressure more often.
“For us, it was an interesting sort of decision,” O’Connor said. “We wanted to try to get him up a little bit higher and I thought he did a good job of doing that. I thought the middle, at times, was very, very good and I thought his execution was good.”
Higuita admitted that it wasn’t his most natural position, but he adapted quickly, terrorizing the LAFC defense with through-balls that imitated their own style of quick-hit passing.
On the kickoff following an LAFC goal, Higuita immediately looked to attack, darting a pass through the midfield to tuck Nani in behind the backline for the equalizing goal. Minutes later, he collected a pass from Nani, took a step into space and dumped a pass off to Ruan, who set up Benji Michel for a strike to take a 2-1 lead.
Both plays came from the Higuita’s ability to efficiently distribute passes, lifting the overall pace of the team’s movement through the midfield.
“Having him on the field always brings us up a level,” fellow midfielder Uri Rosell said. “He has a lot of good qualities, so it’s always good to have him back.”
Although he admitted that he wanted to return more quickly, Higuita said he feels healthy and energized. He believes that the timing of his return is critical, allowing him to make an impact in the final four matches of the season.
As Orlando City looks ahead toward this weekend’s match against New England — which could determine whether the Lions make the playoffs — Higuita is treating each game like it is the last of the year.
“We have to keep taking it one game at a time, because each is important,” Higuita said. “Right now we have four games left, and those are four games that are four finals.”