Federico Higuaín was named Major League Soccer's 2012 Newcomer of Year on Wednesday morning. While it's easy to look at the statistical benchmarks the Argentine set in just 13 matches for the Crew as to why he deserved the honor, his impact on the team and organization means so much more than numbers can quantify.
Skepticism ran rampant when the Crew announced it had signed Higuaín from Colón de Santa Fe as its third Designated Player in club history on July 27. The older brother of Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín, some had their reservations about Higuaín's acquisition following the announcement.
Comments on Facebook ranged from, "10 goals in 62 appearances for a forward is not very good," to "We got a famous player('s older brother)!!!!"
Genetics don't always pan out. After all, John Rooney (brother of Manchester United's Wayne) made only five appearances in one season with the New York Red Bulls. And with little footage of Higuaín floating around on YouTube, fans had every right to hesitate.
But boy, were they wrong.
Not knowing of the devastation that would strike the Columbus Crew family in the coming weeks, Higuaín helped rescue the Crew to overcome off-field tragedy with his prowess on the pitch.
With the Crew reeling from the tragic death of rookie midfielder Kirk Urso due to a congenital heart defect on August 5, Higuaín arrived in Columbus ten days later, just before the emotional kickoff of the Black & Gold's match against the LA Galaxy -- the first time the club took the field since the tragedy.
Clad in a Rolling Stones t-shirt, torn jeans and a leather jacket, the Argentine had a rock star-like demeanor about him upon entering Crew Stadium for the first time. Little did Crew fans -- or staff -- know, the playmaker would soon become a rock star on the field and help Columbus through its most trying time in the club's 17-year history.
The following day, after he was introduced at an early morning press conference, Higuaín made his way onto the Crew's training grounds in Obetz. While the starters participated in regeneration drills at the Thursday session, Higuaín trained with the reserves in a short-sided scrimmage to get acclimated to his new teammates and surroundings.
Just a few minutes into the game, Higuaín delivered a near post, scissor kick strike from a tight angle past rookie goalkeeper Matt Lampson.
"Pipa," as he would become affectionately known as to his teammates and coaches, was the real deal. The Argentine provided a much-needed boost in the team's morale during the difficult period.
"Two things happened at once: we had a tragedy with Kirk's death, and then we had a rising star that proved he could play in this League," Crew Head Coach Robert Warzycha explained. "Definitely, the way [Higuaín] plays and the way he carries himself, Kirk would be proud of him because that is how he played."
In Columbus' next match, a road tilt in Houston that Sunday, Higuaín made his debut to start the second half in relief of Justin Meram. Three minutes into his American soccer initiation, Higuaín offered a taste of his next-level brilliance by outmaneuvering the Dynamo's Adam Moffat to force his first shot on goal as a member of the Crew. Just 10 minutes later, the Argentine sent a perfectly-placed 30-yard lob to the feet of a streaking Eddie Gaven on the counter attack. Gaven beat Houston 'keeper Tally Hall to the far post with his left foot to give Columbus the 2-1 lead.
Averaging only 1.05 goals-per-game at the time, Columbus exploded for 10 goals to win its next four matches. Of the 10 tallies, Higuaín was accountable for eight of them, with three goals and five assists during the winning streak. Higuaín's performances earned him back-to-back MLS Player of the Week honors during his first fortnight in the League, thanks in-part to helping the Crew back from a 2-0 deficit at home against New England on August 25 with two deft deadball strikes in an eventual 4-2 win. Higuaín's three goals and six assists over his first five League games was the best start for any Designated Player since the rule was established in 2007.
"It energized the team with the goals he scored, especially in the beginning in his first five games and the assists he had," Warzycha said. "The transition he had, coming to MLS from the Argentine league, I'm not surprised that he was voted the best Newcomer of the Year. The way he plays, everybody likes it. He brings such a different and fresh game to our stadium."
While his scoring production slowed over the next few games, Higuaín's impact was felt throughout the remainder of the 2012 season as he provided the true Number 10 the Crew had lacked since the departure of 2008 MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto following the 2010 season. Higuaín finished 2012 with five goals and seven assists in only 13 games, including a brace in the season finale against Toronto FC on October 28.
Like his fellow Argentine before him, Higuaín became the Crew's designated set-piece taker, serving-up three assists and three goals (one PK) from restarts. Just as the Crew finished one spot out of playoff contention in Schelotto's shortened debut season in 2007, the team finished a single point behind the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference table in Higuaín's inaugural year in Black & Gold. Higuaín, similar to Schelotto, made everyone around him better as well. Ten-year MLS veteran Eddie Gaven scored five of his career-high nine goals due to the increased space he was given following Higuaín's debut. Captain Chad Marshall and Josh Williams were also beneficiaries, heading home goals from Higuaín's outstanding service on set pieces.
And who knows? Maybe Higuaín can replicate what his fellow countryman did in his first full season by leading the Crew to a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup victory as Schelotto did in 2008.
Given the fact that Higuaín will again be paired in the attack with fellow midseason newcomer Jairo Arrieta -- who scored nine goals and registered four assists in just over a half-season in Columbus -- the sky is the limit for Higuaín and the Crew in 2013.
"Everybody is dreaming big," Warzycha explained. "Obviously, we want to win the Eastern Conference and winning the championship in the [MLS Cup] Final in 2013. We're not going to be able to do that without [Higuaín and Arrieta] helping us. We're looking for a lot of goals because that's usually better for your team, your fans and the entire organization."
The Head Coach continued, "I'm hoping they can stay healthy and they can continue to make the players around them better. That's also a part of why they are here: showing other guys how they are supposed to play and what they're supposed to do on the field. As coaches, we can only coach so much. The other part comes from the heart and from the brain. They are very good additions to our team and I'm looking forward to them scoring a lot of goals."
Higuaín himself hopes to take his game -- and his club -- to new heights next season.
"I only played 13 games this season and I hope next season to do better," the Argentine said as he accepted the 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year honor.
"I know I have to work hard on my preparation and I hope to play the full season with the same intensity I played with in these 13 games.”