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Orlando City midfielder Cristian Higuita starts, earns praise

ATLANTA — Orlando City midfielder Cristian Higuita impressed in his first minutes since the end of March.

Higuita started the Lions’ rivalry match against Atlanta United and played a season-high 78 minutes. Orlando City lost 1-0, but Higuita put in a performance that was praised by coach James O’Connor.

“Personally, I felt really good,” Higuita told Pro Soccer USA through a translator after Sunday’s match. “I felt like the group, as a team, did really well. A well-planned game. We just need to keep working and getting better.”

The defensive midfielder, the Lion who has been with Orlando City the longest, has held out of the team’s previous seven matches before getting the start against the Five Stripes. Before that, he made an appearance in the team’s 3-1 loss to the Montreal Impact on March 16.

“Of course, it’s frustrating,” he said about his lack of playing time. “I just worked, and the coach gave the confidence to play and now I’m playing.”

Higuita said there’s been open dialogue between himself and O’Connor.

“He was asking me for a strong mentality day after day,” Higuita said. “He wanted me to keep showing what I can do day-in and day-out at training. He’s always been honest with me and I’ve been honest with him, so that’s a very good thing.

“I’m just going to keep working. The coaching staff has helped me a lot to improve and we’re going to keep working as a team to get the points that we need.”

Higuita created a chance, completed 77.5 percent of his 40 passes, had two tackles and won two fouls during the Lions’ match against Atlanta United.

“I thought he played very well,” O’Connor said. “Credit to Cristian. I thought he handled the ball very well. He started to tire and that was the only reason we took him off, was to manage him. He got a knock on his shoulder, so we wanted to make sure he was OK, but credit to him. I thought he played very, very well.”

Higuita was evaluated by team doctors for the shoulder knock O’Connor mentioned, but came out of Orlando City’s locker room after the match without ice on either shoulder.  

“He’s shown, probably, the last couple of weeks in training what he’s capable of and been consistent, and that’s why he’s been rewarded today with the start. We were really pleased with his performance. I thought he got on the ball, made some good decisions.

Midfielder Will Johnson said he’s also seen Higuita perform well in training.

“Obviously Cristian comes in, he always does a good job of holding the ball, making plays,” Johnson said. “Probably needs more minutes to get a little bit sharper and let his quality show through, but he’s a good that’s in a good way in training at the moment. Hopefully that continues.”

Managing minutes

O’Connor was coy when asked what his squad might look like Wednesday against the Seattle Sounders. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, centerback Lamine Sane and midfielder Uri Rosell were all held out of Orlando City’s match-day 18 on Sunday. Nani is dealing with calf inflammation, but the others were coach’s decisions. 

“We’ll wait and see,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “I’m not going to comment too much. But yeah, we obviously need to manage, obviously this week. We’re getting on a plane tomorrow and going to Seattle.” 

Winless OCB falls again

Orlando City B fell 4-1 to unbeaten North Texas SC on Saturday, continuing a winless run to open the season.

OCB (0-5-2, 2 points) opened the scoring in the 48th minute thanks to William Bagrou. North Texas (5-0-0, 15 points) answered in emphatic fashion, picking up goals in the 69th, 77th, 86th and 88th minutes of the match. The goals were scored by Tanner Tessmann, Johan Gomez, Arturo Rodriguez (PK) and Ronaldo Damus. Rodriguez also had two assists.

Despite the loss, goalkeeper Juliano Chade, a consistent bright spot for OCB, had 10 saves in the match.

OCB returns home to host Toronto FC II on Friday.

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