Toronto FC needs to find a way to stop Crew’s Higuain

As James Sharman reports, it will be most interesting to see how TFC responds to their first bit of adversity all season, playing without Giovinco and Jozy Altidore for their first leg in Columbus.

TORONTO – How does Toronto FC solve a problem like Federico Higuain?

It’s one question that TFC have no doubt been asking themselves ahead of their Eastern Conference final series with the Columbus Crew.

The Argentine ace has been a thorn in Toronto’s side ever since debuting in Major League Soccer in 2012, scoring seven goals and tallying seven assists in 14 appearances against the Reds. This year alone, Higuain, who is the older brother of Juventus star Gonzalo Higuain, has a goal and two assists in three games vs. TFC.


Age doesn’t appear to be slowing Higuain down, either. The 33-year-old Columbus star, who can operate either as a forward or an attacking midfielder, scored nine goals during the regular season, and record a personal-high 14 assists, good enough for fourth-best in the league.

Higuain has continued his fine playmaking form in the playoffs, helping to set up two goals as the Crew have made it to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years.

The Argentine is the main reference point in the Crew’s attack, and in many ways, he is Columbus’ version of Victor Vazquez, who scored eight goals and recorded 16 assists in this first MLS campaign in 2017. It’s a comparison not lost on the Spanish playmaker as he and his TFC teammates prepare to take on the Crew in the first leg of their post-season series next Tuesday in Ohio.

“I see that Higuain is a player maybe like me. He’s always trying to get the ball, to [influence] the game, to play to the forwards. He’s running everywhere, you know? He’s trying to find spaces between the [defensive] lines and that makes sense for them. He’s the dangerous guy on their team. They also have [Justin] Meram, [Ola] Kamara and [Pedro] Santos, but he makes the game for Columbus,” Vazquez said.

The Spaniard later added: “Everybody sees that Higuain is one of the best players in [MLS].”

Stopping Higuain is easier said than done, not just because of his sublime touch and intelligence, but also because Columbus’ style of play perfectly suits his skills. Far from a static side, the Crew are always moving, with players changing positions and looking for space to exploit. Often, opposing defenders can lose track of Higuain in the chaos created by Columbus’ attack.

“They interchange a lot. They get their outside [defenders] involved in the attack, but sometimes they’ll pop into the midfield and create an overload and their forwards will stay high and wide, like Meram or Santos. We’re going to have to stay organized and communicate well, and expect that when we do have the ball, if we do turn it over, they’re going to look to hit us on the counter,” Toronto defender Drew Moor warned.

“But I still think a lot of the play for them goes through Higuain, so if we can keep track of him and limit this touches on the ball in dangerous spots, then it sets us up well.”

Both Toronto and Columbus are comfortable in possession, so chances are very good that TFC will have to do a fair bit of defending in next week’s opening leg. Tracking Higuain can be difficult, as he has a knack for giving his defensive markers the slip and showing up in areas of the pitch you don’t expect where he can then hurt you.

“He’s very, very clever about how he moves around the field. He understands the idea of working against the priority of the defending team, so when the defending team is shifting he’s sliding in the opposite direction,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney explained.

“For us it’s always being aware of him, that’s the priority. You’ve got to know where he is and where he’s drifting and we’ve got to account for the different numbers.

Being aware and making adjustments on the fly are keys to mitigating Higuain’s ability to impact a game.

“If he’s pulling off our shoulder we’ve got to be aware that he’s making that action and maybe not the action that we always want. We’ve got to be able to reduce the space,” Vanney offered.

[snippet id= 2943445]

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.