The 2019 Major League Soccer season marked the end of an era for Columbus Crew SC as team president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko announced on Monday that star Designated Player midfielder Federico Higuaín won’t return for the club in 2020.
The Argentinean midfielder, who will turn 35 on Oct. 25, spent the majority of his eighth season in Columbus sidelined after undergoing knee surgery in June due to an ACL injury and last wore a Black & Gold uniform in a 3-2 road loss to the Colorado Rapids on May 25.
“We decided that we are not going to continue having conversations with his group in terms of a contract for next season,” Bezbatchenko told the media following Monday’s training session. “We really thank Pipa for everything he’s been for this club, he’s an absolute legend, he’s respected from top to bottom in our organization. These decisions we don’t take lightly and from my time in the league, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make personally.”
Labeled by many as the greatest player in club history, Pipa joined the Crew in 2012 as the third-ever Designated Player signed by the Crew. The cerebral Argentinean quickly established himself as the most brilliant player on the team’s roster and that remained true for nearly all of his eight-year career in Columbus.
Higuain wore the Crew’s jersey in 193 MLS regular season matches, scoring 55 goals and registering a club-record 63 assists. He also played in 14 postseason matches, scoring four goals and adding five assists. He is also the only player to notch at least 50 goals and 50 assists for the Black & Gold and one of just 21 in the entire MLS.
His list of accolades in Columbus also includes sitting in third place in all-time goal scoring and the most game-winnings assists (20) and penalty kick goals (19) in club history.
More than the numbers, though, Pipa revolutionized the team’s style in Major League Soccer. The Argentinean became one of the most influential players in the entire league under the guidance of former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter with his fantastic vision and his unique passing ability.
Ironically, the playing style that enchanted Crew fans for so many years, though, was one of the most relevant factors in the decision of not extending Higuain a contract offer for the 2020 season. As Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter see the Black & Gold’s offense switching to more of a transition style, the belief is that a more dynamic player will be needed to pull the strings.
“There are many factors that went in to it, but primarily it was due to the change that we see in this club and the style of play,” the team president added. “After his injury, we had to move away from a certain style of play that was more possession-based and we had more success by being more transition-oriented and counter-pressing and what we’ve been calling being decisive and relentless on both sides of the ball.”
The gruesome injury Pipa had and the uncertainty about how much impact it could have in the future of his career also played a pivotal factor in the team’s decision to let the Argentinean walk and go a different direction at this point.
“You cannot forget about an injury and the age of a player,” Bezbatchenko stated. “That has to be a factor into future roster planning, just like it does for every other player on the roster. You have to look at all the factors. We created a decision-making process from him since the injury, we evaluated the pros and the cons, we discussed it, we debated, we argued and we felt that this would be the best decision for the club.”
Porter, who coached Pipa in his last 14 matches as a Crew player, also offered his view to the departure of one of the greatest players in club history.
“I really enjoyed the short amount of time that I worked with Pipa. He’s up there with the best players I’ve ever coached and obviously he’s done a ton for this club. What he’s done for this club is unmeasurable. These decisions are obviously never easy, you see that around the world with multiple sports. It’s a guy who’s done a lot for the club, a legend and you want to honor him but you also have to always be mindful of what’s best for the club looking forward. We knew when he had the injury that it was going to be a difficult one.”
Sharing the news with Pipa, who according to Bezbatchenko clearly expressed his intention to play for the Crew next year, wasn’t any easier. The club reached out to the Argentinean to tell him they wouldn’t pursue a contract extension a few weeks ago and the midfielder’s reaction wasn’t positive, as expected.
“We had professional conversations and we wanted to tell him early, weeks ago, so that there was time for us and him to prepare. This wasn’t something we’d like to wait until the very end of the year,” Bezbatchenko explained. “He was caught off guard and I don’t mean he was happy about it, but we as a club need to make decision to put this club in a position to be a consistent contender.”
Even though Higuain’s immediate future will probably include him playing professionally somewhere else, the idea of him wearing black and gold again is certainly not ruled out. It probably won’t happen on a soccer field, but Pipa could be a member of the Crew at some point in the future.
“We’re going to continue having conversations with Pipa about a role with the club, he’s always welcome here,” Bezbatchenko reflected. “We’d certainly entertain the possibility of having him at the front office or in the academy or in the coaching ranks. We do believe we need to have former players involved with this club. We’d welcome this opportunity if Pipa wanted to stay, but at the same time we all know he’s very competitive and I believe he’d love to continue playing. We’ll help him in any way we can but in the day he decides to stop playing, he’s always a friendly face and the door is open for him.”