Gonzalo Higuain started Inter Miami's first five (winless) matches -- a draw and four losses. He missed the club's last three games, all wins.
Coincidence? Maybe, but the fact is not lost on Herons supporters, many of whom want Pipa benched permanently. That's a bit premature, in my opinion. I've said Higuain is Inter Miami's most important player, and -- despite his lackluster start to the season -- I stand by that claim.
So, what to do with the Argentine superstar? That's the biggest question facing the Herons right now, and how it's answered could sabotage a promising rebuild or help translate this team's potential into performance.
Higuain, 34, is the only Designated Player available to Inter Miami. He's a supremely talented striker who found his greatest success with European giants Real Madrid (107 goals in 190 appearances) and Juventus (48 in 105); he has 266 total goals in 507 club appearances and 31 goals in 75 appearances for Argentina's national team. He is the highest profile player signed by Inter Miami to bring international cache to the fledgling Herons.
He also has been inconsistent, volatile, disappointing and enigmatic. He's one of the few holdovers from the team's original roster, blown up this offseason after a salary scandal and poor on-field results. He did score twice in the first five matches, both from the penalty spot, but his play has been inconsistent as he's tried to find his way in coach Phil Neville's offense.
Soccer director Chris Henderson and Neville, in his second-year, purged the Herons' player pool last offseason and brought in an assortment of players to fit their vision for the club: younger, quicker, more team-oriented, hungrier for success. Integrating the newcomers into the squad has resulted in moments of absolutely beautiful football, but much longer stretches of awkward inefficiency. And that's OK. It's to be expected, under the circumstances.
But back to Higuain: with their most skilled and most highly paid player on the bench, striker Leonardo Campana scored the first hat-trick in club history to lead Inter Miami to a 3-2 home win against New England at DRV PNK Stadium. A week later, the Herons visited Seattle for their first-ever match against the Sounders, and edged the perennial powerhouse 1-0 behind Robbie Robinson's first goal of the season and a fearless and inspired defensive performance led by goalkeeper Nick Marsman and center backs Damian Lowe and Aime Mabika.
On Wednesday, Higuain again was unavailable for IMCF's first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match and first competitive match against South Florida rival Miami FC, a second division professional team that plays in the USL Championship. With an MLS match against Atlanta United coming up Sunday, Neville rested some stalwarts of the two-game winning streak and still managed to eke out a 1-0 victory on Campana's fifth goal of the season.
In Higuain's absence, the Men in Pink played freely and without fear, with confidence and camaraderie. Being installed as the lone striker let Campana shine as a scoring threat and a team leader, often directing teammates on offense and defense. Campana, Ariel Lassiter, and Robbie Robinson began developing real chemistry in the attack when they played without the urge to defer to Higuain.
Likewise, Lowe and Mabika are becoming a tough, physical, defensive tandem in the back line, with Christopher McVey and Deandre Yedlin dangerous on the wings. Jean Mota, Robert Taylor and Gregore are a functional and improving midfield, and Marsman -- missing earlier in the season because of injury -- brings experience and leadership between the pipes.
Neville obviously was excited after his young team earned its first win.
"What you saw was a reflection of what we’re trying to build: Eighteen players all fighting for each other, that stuck to the game plan."- Inter Miami coach Phil Neville
"What you saw was a reflection of what we’re trying to build," Neville told reporters after the match. "Eighteen players all fighting for each other, that stuck to the game plan.”
Can Higuain find a role among those 18? Strikers are famously passionate and proud, and Higuain is no different. The Herons need to keep Campana as their starting No. 9; can Higuain defer to the younger player?
Will Neville try to use Pipa as a winger, asking him to create chances for Campana or other Herons crashing into the box? Will Higuain be used as an "instant offense" super-sub, coming into matches late when Miami needs a goal? Or will the high-priced Argentinian finish his MLS -- and maybe his playing career -- on the bench, a reminder of the Herons' frustrating beginnings?
I believe Gonzalo Higuain should adjust his expectations. He has an opportunity to add to his already great legacy by becoming a mentor, teacher and role model, helping mold this young roster into the foundation of a truly special organization. If he can't do that -- if instead he becomes frustrated and petulant, dividing the locker room and undermining Neville Inter Miami should show him the door, even if it means buying out the rest of his contract.
No matter what path Higuain and Neville choose, as long as Pipa wears the Pink & Black he will be the most important player on Miami's roster.