Orlando City’s rivalry match on Sunday against Atlanta United includes a host of players to watch.
Coach Jason Kreis will be keeping his eye on two in particular.
The midfield pairing of Cristian Higuita and Yoshi Yotún will play a huge role in whether Atlanta United’s dangerous attack gets opportunities in transition.
“If we give the ball away cheaply and turn this into a back-and-forth affair, that will be the worst possible scenario we can put ourselves in,” Kreis said.
“We need to control the ball better than we have in some of the matches. Truth be told, in like 80 percent of the matches this year, we’ve had a higher possession percentage than our opponents, but I still think we can be a little more controlled with the ball and will need to be this Sunday.”
Since Higuita stepped on the pitch against the Philadelphia Union during win No. 3 of Orlando City’s six-match win streak, he’s been a key component of the club’s success — a solid defensive midfielder to provide balance to Yotún’s more box-to-box style.
Before the season got started, it didn’t look like Higuita would have a place in Orlando City’s match-day 18. Kreis said Higuita came in to preseason training unfit and the two had a one-on-one conversation regarding Kreis’ expectations for Higuita, who was recovering from a calf injury that he suffered in September.
“It’s been a really important time for me,” Higuita said through a translator. “The recovery for me has been really good. I’ve worked on my fitness a lot. I’ve lost the pounds that I had and things are going my way.
“I’m very happy with the team’s performance. How we’ve been playing. I’m looking forward to the next game.”
Kreis is happy, too.
“Looks like two different people, really,” Kreis said about Higuita before the Lions’ match against Real Salt Lake.
“I think he was probably 20 pounds heavier when he came in at the beginning of preseason and nowhere as fit and nowhere near as hungry and nowhere near as good a professional as he’s proven himself to be right now.”
Yotún, on the other hand, was a known commodity coming into the season. Kreis knew the midfielder would be a huge player against Atlanta United, which is why Yotún was subbed off in the 81st minute of the Lions’ 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.
Yotún is sitting on four yellow cards – one more and he’ll receive a one-match suspension.
“Hopefully we’ll be in that same scenario this weekend where we’re winning by several goals,” Kreis said Wednesday. “If we are, then we’ll do the same.”
Kreis said his two midfielders operate on similar wavelength. Higuita has worked to become more active in the attack — he said everyone knows he can defend. Yotún has been the club’s main penalty kick taker – he has two goals from the penalty spot – and leads the Lions with five assists.
“Every day I’m working hard,” Yotún said through a translator. “The success just comes from my teammates. Since the beginning of the season, we set the goal of reaching the playoffs. I think that my work looks good and it’s helped by the success of my teammates.”
The two midfielder work together well. Higuita’s defensive capabilities mean Yotún can get farther up the pitch and deliver passes from the halfway line to wingers on the opposite side of the pitch (see: Orlando City’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes).
“Obviously, Cristian and I speak the same language, so that’s helpful,” he said. “On and off the pitch, I’m very happy to have him. He’s a very mature guy. He’s very serious in what he does. I’m very happy to have him.”
This midfield pairing won’t last the entire season, though. Yotún will eventually leave to join Peru for the World Cup in Russia.
“I always believe in my team,” Yotún said. “We always have many options at the position. We have Uri [Rosell], PC, Pierre [da Silva] who can play in there. Will Johnson, when Scott [Sutter] comes back. Coach will have many options.”