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Columbus Crew SC need Federico Higuain on the field

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The Black & Gold are a better side when their No. 10 is playing the No. 10.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

When Federico Higuain isn’t on the field, Columbus Crew SC is a different team.

This is true both literally and figuratively, given Gregg Berhalter’s change in tactics in last week’s 1-0 defeat to the Chicago Fire where Higuain missed out.

“When Federico’s not in the team, you can see,” central defender Nicolai Naess said this week. “He’s an important player for us.”

Although the Crew SC head coach did not confirm that the absence of his creative playmaker led to a change in formation, it’s hard to imagine a shift like that one if Higuain, who was held out with a minor ankle injury, were available.

Without Pipa, Columbus shifted to a 4-3-3 formation, featuring three more defensive-minded midfielders — Wil Trapp, Artur and Mohammed Abu — play centrally. The attack suffered for most of the first half and only drastically improved once the team shifted back to its normal formation and moved creative winger Justin Meram into Higuain’s typical No. 10 spot.

But this isn’t just about that one game.

Since Berhalter took over before the 2014 season, Higuain has missed 22 games. In those contests, Crew SC is a modest 7-7-8. While that’s not a poor record without the club’s best player, it also reveals an average side with Pipa not on the pitch.

In 2016, when Higuain missed a career high 14 matches after sports hernia surgery, the Black & Gold went 4-5-5 without the midfield maestro, missing the playoffs by just six points. Turning one of those losses, especially home tilts against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Philadelphia Union, into wins and a tacking on a few more draws could have been the ticket into the postseason for the third straight year.

And Higuain has that kind of impact on this team.

“What Pipa does so well for is just always being available, always being an outlet,” Trapp said. “Of course his quality on the ball and finding passes is a huge difference maker for us. And I think in a game like this last game, what we lacked is someone who was going to make those passes.”

In a possession-based system like Berhalter typically likes to play, having a player in the middle of the field who can receive passes and create is essential.

“He’s a typical No. 10,” Naess added of Higuain. “He’s a guy in the pockets. He can turn, he can create some chances.”

On Saturday, the goal was less about possessing and attacking than normal.

With Higuain out and Meram, the other player truly capable of popping up in the right positions and turn something out of nothing, isolated out wide for much of the game, there was a struggle by Crew SC to create offensive chances. When rookie Niko Hansen checked into the game in the second half, allowing Meram to push centrally, things began to open up more for Columbus.

“I thought he did OK,” Berhalter said of Meram in that role. “It’s going to be him getting used to his positioning and the spacing of that position. It’s a little bit different than being wide. But he certainly has the skill set to be able to do that.”

While Meram is a danger, and a potential replacement for Higuain one day, it’s always better to have two creative players on the field rather than just one.

Also, Higuain has spent the last five years terrorizing Major League Soccer. With three more assists, he will join a unique club with 40 goals and 40 assists playing for the Black & Gold.

This is a player who shows up on the scouting report.

“When Pipa’s on the field, he’s always someone that the other team has to prepare for and that’s a difference that a lot of people may not realize watching the game,” Trapp said. “but you know that the opponent is a little bit more worried about where Federico is at all times.”

At 32 years old, Higuain is not a player who’s going to play every minute this season. Berhalter said the staff will be smart with how they handle the Designated Player and more games like last week against the Fire, where Pipa was held out even though he might have been able to go, will occur.

When he does miss out, Meram may be an option, but Crew SC preferred to keep him wide a season ago.

With new addition Kektua Manneh, this may help alleviate that problem — once Manneh is fit — but it sounds like that won’t be an issue for this weekend’s match with Toronto FC.

“He’s fine,” Berhalter said of Higuain on Tuesday. “He’ll be ready to go.”