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The Columbus Crew Face Life Without Higuain

The Crew's No. 10 is suspended for Saturday's game against Toronto.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew have a job on their hands on Saturday evening. Not only will they face a dangerous Toronto FC - the team that handed them their first loss of the season on April 5 - but will do so without their best player, Federico Higuain.

The Argentinian playmaker will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation after stepping in front of a free kick to slow down a restart last week against the Chicago Fire.

"It happens," head coach Gregg Berhalter said this week.

"In the course of a game, it happens. You don't always see a yellow card given for that. I think we should be better though. That's an easy yellow card to give and you can give it in a tactical way."

Now Berhalter is tasked with finding a replacement for a player who is near irreplaceable.

"We talk about not being able to replace Federico one-for-one," Berhalter said. "You can't do it. There's not many guys in the league that can do what he does, if any."

With no like-for-like option to swap what many Crew players called the team and league MVP, the coaching staff will have to figure out another way to get production.

This week Berhalter pointed to several options. Last year, midfielder Bernardo Anor played centrally at times and replaced Pipa - Higuain's nickname - in the lineup when he was absent. Berhalter pointed to attack-minded midfielder Ben Speas as Higuain's backup earlier in the season, but would not name him the starter for this week.

Other options would be Justin Meram, who has played centrally in practice, forward Dominic Oduro, or midfielder Daniel Paladini.

"If you think about guys that can play centrally, Justin can probably play there, Bernardo can probably play there," Berhalter said on Tuesday.

"We could go with two forwards and play Dom and [Jairo Arrieta]. We can go with Ben Speas... We could go with Daniel Paladini as more of a midfielder. Like I said, there's probably seven or eight different combinations we can make."

After playing with the essentially the same starting lineup over the first eight games, Berhalter has been forced to reshuffle the deck frequently due to suspensions, injuries, and national team call-ups. Players such as Chad Barson, Ethan Finlay, Agustin Viana, and Tyson Wahl have all responded, showing the depth of this team.

This depth will be called into question in a new spot, but the players are confident in whoever is chosen.

"I think we've got some good guys that have the ability to come in there and find some of those passes," said Finlay, who was benefitted from two Higuain assists in the last two games.

"I think we're pretty confident, we've got a lot of choice, and I think we'll try some things throughout the week and see what happens."

Defender Josh Williams echoed Finlay's belief and said that whoever comes in must only worry about what they can do.

"You just need someone to step in his position and not even worry about filling his shoes, but play their game," he said.

"Obviously we're not going to have somebody who's getting that many touches. Whoever Gregg calls upon, just do their job. Facilitate the ball, get in the holes, get some shots off. That's all we can ask of that person."

Berhalter has a difficult decision to make ahead of the meeting with Toronto, a game that has importance in a tight Eastern Conference and the Trillium Cup competition. If the Crew can get a win in Canada, they can move six points clear of their rivals, who have played three fewer games, and pull even in the race the rivalry trophy.

In such a big game, a head coach would usually be disappointed to be without his best player, but the glass-half-full Berhalter has found a positive way to spin the situation with the upcoming schedule.

"I honestly think that this is for the best," he said.

"If I'm looking at three games in a week, he would want to play all three of them and we'd have to drag him off the field.

It's unfortunate that he's not going to be there against an Eastern Conference team, but we also feel like now we have Federico for two games in a week rather than three games and it gives him that extra rest, which is important."

This is an opportunity for a member of the Black and Gold. What he does with it will play a large role in the outcome of Saturday's contest.