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Federico Higuain nearing his best-ever season for Columbus Crew SC

After a tough 2016, Pipa is healthy and showing all he can do for the Black & Gold

MLS: Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It was a frustrating 2016 MLS campaign for Columbus Crew SC.

The Black & Gold missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach Gregg Berhalter and approached the 2017 season with a handful of questions to answer.

One of those, perhaps the most important one, was. “What’s the future of Federico Higuain with the club?”

At the age of 32, the Argentinean playmaker struggled with injuries in 2016. He played in only 20 matches, recording just four goals and three assists, his lowest numbers since he joined the club, in 2012, when he played in only 13 matches. The club’s only Designated Player at the time, Pipa seemed like he had lost a step.

Maybe against the odds, Crew SC re-signed its No. 10 to a new deal and kept him on its roster for 2017. Plenty of pundits suggested this was a mistake, believing Higuain was past his prime.

Fast forward six months and the perception around Higuain has changed, as the playmaker could be en route to his best season wearing a black and gold uniform.

“He is a guy who wants to perform, wants to earn his money,” Berhalter said in regards to Pipa. “You need your highly-paid players playing well and making an impact and he is acutely aware of that. He takes it seriously and the work starts out here (on the training ground) and carries over on to the field. I can’t say enough positive things about Federico and to get the numbers behind it, it’s really good.”

Crew SC fans’ main concern about Pipa regarded his health after an injury-plagued season. Higuain has put those fears to rest, starting 17 of the team’s 18 MLS matches so far this year and is the second-most used player of the roster, with 1,458 minutes logged, one less than winger Justin Meram.

“The difference from last season is that now I’m healthy to play,” Higuain said this week. “When you’re not healthy, it’s difficult to play on a high level.”

But being on the field consistently is not everything Higuain brings for Columbus. He is doing a lot more, as his nine goals and five assists show. It is fair to say that, with at least 16 regular season games yet to be played, Pipa has a good shot on having his best season with the club, overcoming the 11-goal, nine-assist performance from 2013.

“I don’t look too much to the numbers or stats. I try to play good soccer, to help my teammates, to make this team bigger. That’s my goal,” Higuain said.

But Higuain’s resurgence did not come out of nowhere. As his teammates noticed, after last year’s hernia injury, the Argentinean is doing a lot of extra work to keep his body health for the entire season. Another signal of his resilience and commitment with Crew SC.

“We always knew the quality was there obviously, but he’s healthy now,” commented midfielder and captain Wil Trapp. “He missed a lot of games last season and he didn’t want it to happen again, so he’s been doing a lot of work off the field, in the gym, and keeping his standard physical and mentality right. I think that has been a huge part for him.”

When he got his extension late last year, Higuain said in a club press release that “perhaps it is the last for me.” At that point, it seemed likely that he wouldn’t have enough gas in the tank for one more season, but after his recent performances, the club is probably considering keeping him for more time.

“I think he’s drinking whatever LeBron is drinking,” defender, and noted Cleveland fan, Josh Williams joked of the 32-year-old Cavaliers star. “It’s almost like the older he gets the better he is. He’s in incredible form right now and I think scoring-wise it is the best I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been gone for two years and he might have done some crazy things then, but as far as I’ve been with the team, this is the very top level for him.”