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Could Santos be the solution for Higuain’s absence?

The Portuguese winger passed the first test as the centerpiece of the Crew’s offense

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter had a big problem on his hands at the start of last week when he was told star midfielder Federico Higuain would miss the remainder of the 2019 Major League Soccer season due to an ACL injury.

With Pipa being an integral part of the Black & Gold’s attack for the last several seasons and the roster without an immediate replacement of the same caliber as the Argentinean playmaker, Porter had to think fast and start looking for solutions right away.

And he might have found one on his very first attempt.

Saturday’s 2-2 tie with the New York City FC, the first match without Higuain, saw the Crew line up with winger Pedro Santos at the No. 10 spot, flanked by Robinho and David Accam. The Portuguese brought a new style to the role, but it was undeniably an efficient one as he not only drew the penalty kick that generated the team’s first goal but also scored the second one himself, contributing decisively to Columbus’ offensive production that night.

“That was great to see because we’re going to have to manage the rest of the year without Pipa and that was definitely a worry,” Porter reflected after the match. “I think we got it right and I think he’s going to do a nice job for us in there and we can change our system as well. It doesn’t mean we have to go in there with him as the 10 every game, but that it’s good to know that we can keep our system and just change personnel and slide him in. Maybe he wanted to show that he’s the guy now in there. And that was good to see, we wanted to see that out of him.”

The good performance earned Santos a spot on the MLS Team of the Week for the first time this season. He was very active in the center spot of Columbus’ offensive system and made the Crew more of a vertical team, as it as it was clear on both goals, which were generated in transition plays.

The attacking midfielder spot was not a natural one for Santos, but he felt confident enough to take it on and help the team in Higuain’s absence. His limited experience at the position was enough for him to figure out what to do with his first start there.

“Porter talked to me during the week and asked if I could play the No. 10,” the Portuguese explained. “I had played there a few times in Portugal so I said I would be fine. The main change is that in the center you need to look harder for the space, it’s not always there and you have to find it. But when I get some space I can push the ball forward and also shoot, which is good. I think it becomes less of a dribbling game and more a matter of thinking fast and knowing what you’ll do before you get the ball because the space is more limited.”

Santos’ decision to embrace the role is another reflex of the confident player he has become in 2019. Signed in 2017 as a Designated Player, the 31-year-old winger scored just once in his first two seasons in Columbus and raised some eyebrows about the investment made to acquire him.

This season, he found the back of the net four times already in just 15 games. The reason for the change, him and Porter are unanimous to say, is obvious – confidence.

“Since he first got here, he keeps telling me to play my game and that he believes in my quality,” Santos added. “I’m very grateful for that and I can really feel the good energy when he talks. That’s obviously great for any player to hear from his coach and every time I step on the field I give all I have for him to keep pushing me.”

The good moment of the field, unfortunately, contrasts with a tough one in Santos’ personal life. His father is facing serious health issues in Portugal and, for this reason, the club the winger allowed to fly back home last month, which caused him to miss the road game against Minnesota United.

Since he returned, Santos scored twice and showed he’s doing a great job in remaining sharp and focused even during a tough time. But it hasn’t been easy, he says.

“It’s hard not to think about my father,” he explained. “Since I’m here, I’m trying to help the team in any way I can, but my mind is also in Portugal. When we’re training or playing I’m doing my best and all I can do is hope all goes well with him. When I get home, I call my family and try to be with them and support them as much as I can despite of the distance.”