Columbus Crew SC is in a place the team hasn’t been in a long time. The Black & Gold will go the remainder of the year without Federico Higuain in the lineup after the attacking midfielder tore his ACL two games ago against the Colorado Rapids.
Since his debut season of 2012, Higuain played at least 20 games per year, and that low number came due to an injury in 2016. But Columbus’ playmaker saw action in only 14 matches this season before the injury ended his year.
Without Higuain, the Black & Gold have to find a replacement. While the team could look to bring someone in this summer to replace the 34-year-old Higuain, there is one player already on the roster that can step into that No. 10 role in the midfield and help replace some of the creativity lost in Pedro Santos.
The Portuguese midfielder came to Columbus in 2017 as a winger but has played multiple positions throughout his career. During his time with the Crew, Santos lined up on either wing as well as being trusted in a wing-back role in the second leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Eastern Conference finals.
“I watch a lot of games and I try to learn all positions so I can play, I try to (watch) other players,” Santos explained. “So I see these moments for the other players and I try to do the same.”
First-year head coach Caleb Porter used Santos exclusively as a winger until the Higuain injury. Although the Black & Gold toyed with the idea of changing formations in order to keep Santos on the wing, Porter elected to go with the Portuguese player as the No. 10 in the last game against New York City FC.
All Santos did was score his fourth goal of the season — marking the first time in his Crew career he scored in back-to-back games — and was dangerous throughout the match.
“His technique is the biggest thing probably,” Porter said of what makes Santos a good replacement for Higuain. “He’s got really exceptional technique. His ability to serve balls, play a final pass, score. He’s a very technical player. So my question with him in there was how is his decision making going to be.
“A lot of time guys have the technique but they don’t have the decision making, the tactical IQ. What I’ve been impressed with is that Pedro has really shown a whole different level than I thought in terms of his understanding of positioning. He’s taken really good positions in the layers and in the pockets. He’s been very clever.”
Although he looked comfortable playing in the center of the field against New York City, moving from the wing was an adjustment for Santos. While he did play the No. 10 in some games when he was younger, Santos had to think quicker because the spaces to work in are smaller than when he’s out wide and can pick his moments to tuck into central pockets.
While the adjustment to a new role with the Crew is important, Santos deals with a more serious challenge at the moment. The winger returned home to Portugal to deal with a family health issue prior to the May 18 game at Minnesota United. He then revealed on social media on June 5 that his father passed away.
This again took Santos away from the team late last week, but he has since returned to the group and hopes soccer can help take his mind off of what is happening off the field.
“For me, I don’t have problems with it,” he said of compartmentalizing his soccer and personal life. “Just working and thinking positive and being positive in the game and trying to do my best.”
According to Porter, Santos is using the memory of his father as inspiration to play well for the Black & Gold.
“He’s playing really inspired right now,” the head coach said. “I’ve seen that before with guys. He’s really taken the pitch with a lot of motivation and a point to prove. I think a lot of it is confidence.”
The 2019 season is one where Santos finally blossomed for the Crew. After scoring just once over his first year and a half with the club, the winger finally looks at his most comfortable this year and it is reflected in his play and production.
Tuesday night brings a new challenge as Columbus enters the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the fourth round. The Black & Gold take on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at MAPFRE Stadium. This game provides Santos with another opportunity to play the No. 10, continue to grow in that new role and continue the type of inspired soccer that would make his father, and will make his teammates and fans, proud.
“For me, he’s a special player and I always liked him from the beginning,” Porter said. “I understood why he was taking a little bit of heat for not scoring but now he’s shown he can score. I think he’s going to be a really valuable piece for us at the end of the year, massive. And obviously moving forward, he’s really got a place in my team.”