MLS Cup win would put Higuain firmly alongside Schelotto in Crew lore
It's never easy being compared to a legend. It's even tougher following one.
In 2008, Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto led the Columbus Crew to a Supporters' Shield and an MLS Cup double. The prototypical South American playmaker, Schelotto scored seven goals and collected 19 assists in an MVP-winning season, and before being rewarded with the club's first-ever designated player contract, he capped the campaign with a three-assist performance in a 3-1 MLS Cup win over the New York Red Bulls. Schelotto set the bar for creative attacking play in Columbus and to a large extent established the measuring stick for future players in his position across MLS during the designated player era.
"Legend" is just one of the words that applies.
For the man currently filling the role inaugurated by Schelotto, the challenge of following the legend is complicated by the ticking clock on the Crew's very existence in Ohio. In a normal situation, the playoffs would be a pressure cooker for Federico Higuain because they're the playoffs. But 2017 is now beyond normal, with the specter of relocation hanging over the team's playoff run, and at 33, Higuain is running out of seasons to match his compatriot.
Whether it's fair for Higuain to be saddled with the burden of comparison to Schelotto or not, they're certainly natural. Similar in stature and skill set, both players fit into a tradition of Argentine maestros like Juan Roman Riquelme and provided MLS with Cup-winning talents like Javier Morales and Diego Valeri. Capable of scoring goals themselves, Schelotto and Higuain are both at their best when they're using intelligence, vision and technical ability to set up their teammates.
But there are significant differences between the two that bear mentioning. Higuain arrived in Columbus in 2012 when he was 27, while Schelotto made the move north already in his 30s. Signing after a stint at Colon de Santa Fe, Higuain was a much less heralded player than Schelotto, who had played 300 times for Boca Juniors. Although his age probably raised expectations close to the achievements of Schelotto, Higuain entered a more mature MLS scene with a higher level of play.
Higuain hit the ground running, scoring three goals and provided six assists in his first five games after a summer arrival. An injury and a dip in form saw the Crew miss the playoffs by a single point, but the Argentine backed up his truncated debut season with 11 goals and nine assists in 2013, Gregg Berhalter's first season as coach. It was more of the same in 2014, with an equal goal haul and seven assists. More importantly, the Crew returned to the playoffs that year, validating the investment in Higuain in the process.
By 2015, Higuain was established as an upper-echelon attacking player in MLS and the Crew were established as an aggressive, attacking team under Berhalter. That combination led to a second-place finish the Eastern Conference, and after the club knocked off the top-seeded Red Bulls in the conference final, an MLS Cup final at home.
A mistake-filled first seven minutes ruined Columbus's chance to lift the trophy in its own building, and Higuain failed to put his stamp on the game. The disappointment of the 2-1 loss to Portland portended a tumultuous follow-up season marked by a clash of personalities between Higuain and the Crew's star striker Kei Kamara. In the aftermath of a very public spat and reports of locker room showdowns, the club shipped Kamara to New England -- effectively siding with Higuain.
Between the drama and a slew of injuries, the Crew failed to make the playoffs in 2016. Higuain had the worst season of his MLS career, scoring four goals and adding three assists in just 20 appearances. With his contract expiring after the 2017 campaign, the smart money was on Higuain departing Columbus and the club casting its net for a new playmaker. The speculation about Higuain's future in Black and Gold bubbled over in August, when the Argentine told reporters he thought it was "the finish of the cycle" in Columbus.
But as is so often the case, the situation took a different turn by October. After a span in which he provided six assists in four games, Higuain signed a one-year extension that will keep him with the team through next season. In the playoffs, Higuain hit the audacious Panenka penalty that set the tone for the Crew's shootout win over Atlanta in the first round, then assisted on the second goal in a 4-1 home leg win over New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The man they call "Pipa" already has done enough to earn a place among the Crew's all-time greats, but winning a championship would solidify his position alongside Schelotto as the preeminent legends. Columbus's potential move to Austin, which looks more and more likely by the day, puts Higuain in the unique position to lead his team to a title and provide a lasting memory for a group of fans who may not have any more seasons -- championship or otherwise -- to look forward to.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.