SIRK’S NOTEBOOK: Pipa joins the 40/40 Club

Federico Higuain slotted the ball to Justin Meram. Meram slotted the ball to Ola Kamara. Kamara slotted the ball off of the far post and into the net.

At that moment, Federico Higuain slotted into the Columbus Crew SC record books. The assist propelled the Argentine playmaker into the exclusive 40/40 Club. He joins Brian McBride and Jeff Cunningham as the only players to attain at least 40 goals and 40 assists while wearing Black & Gold.

During an on-field television interview immediately after the game, Alex Stec asked Higuian what it meant to join the 40/40 Club.

“Numbers are numbers,” he said. “I don’t look too much at stats.”

And that was that. He immediately switched the topic to the only stat that matters to him — the scoreboard. He was proud of his teammates for their collective 3-0 win over the defending MLS Cup champions from Seattle.

*****

Higuain joined Columbus Crew SC in the darkest of times. The Argentine import and his Rolling Stones t-shirt made his first visit to MAPFRE Stadium on the night that the grief-stricken team resumed play following the tragic and unexpected passing of midfielder Kirk Urso.

That was the very first Columbus locker room he walked into. It couldn’t have been easy. He was introduced to the media at a press conference the next morning. Two days after that, he sprung Eddie Gaven on a breakaway goal in Houston for his first assist in Black & Gold. A few days after that came the first goal, along with another assist, in a 2-1 Trillium Cup-clinching victory over Toronto. Then came two free kick goals in a 4-3 win over New England.

On and on it went, as Crew SC made an improbable run up the table, one dramatic last-minute victory after another. Although they ultimately fell short of the playoffs, Higuain was named the MLS Newcomer of the Year after tallying five goals in seven assists in just 13 games.

The numbers have been piling up ever since.

*****

Reflecting on Pipa’s accomplishment in the postgame press conference, Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter focused on the intangibles, which are sometimes an unknown quantity when signing a Designated Player.

“Some things that you hope for is that they have the work rate and the attitude as team players,” Berhalter said. “You don’t always know that you’re going to get that, and with him, that’s what amazes me the most about him is his work rate, his team mentality. His team-first mentality, I think, is exceptional.”

When Higuain arrived in 2012, there were still holdovers from when Argentine legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto first came to Columbus in 2007. When guys were asked to compare their new signing to their former teammate, they would invariably laugh. When Schelotto showed up, it wasn’t to practice. His half-hearted training sessions caused many players to initially question what they were getting. They soon learned Schelotto was a “See you Saturday” type of player. At his age, he saved his body for Saturday and delivered in a big way. The rest is history. But from the beginning, the players noted that Higuain (who was a much younger 27 when he arrived) worked hard every practice and every game.

“When Pipa got here five years ago, we didn’t really know what exactly we were getting,” said Ethan Finlay, one of the young wingers who saw his career blossom playing off of Higuain. “The [comparisons] will speak for themselves. I remember seeing a show on Spectrum Sports where they talked about the ten best individual seasons in Crew [SC] history, and the comparison is always to Schelotto. He had a tremendous career and a tremendous season, obviously, in 2008. On the same lines as Schelotto, Pipa has changed the culture of our organization. He’s really put his stamp on this ‘New Crew [SC]’ in every way. He’s come into this league and has been one of the better [No.] 10s in the last five or six seasons without a doubt. The consistency has been unparalleled. Apart from last season, when he struggled with some injuries, he’s been as consistent as you can ask for.”

It's been near double-digit goals and assists every season, except for his injury plagued 2016. His prorated stats for 2012 and 2017 are also right in line with this consistent level of production.

Numbers are numbers. And they are good.

*****

“I’m going to punch him,” Meram (32 goals, 31 assists as of June 1, 2017) said, after it was noted that Higuain has abandoned him in the 30/30 Club for fancier digs in the 40/40 Club. “Just kidding. I’m proud of him.”

Like Finlay, Meram’s career has eventually blossomed playing on the wing with Higuain in the middle. It was Meram who delivered the primary assist after receiving an Higuain pass on Wednesday. It was a playmaking combination that led to the milestone secondary assist for Pipa.

 “I love playing with him,” Meram said. “Some of the moments we have playing together, it is so much fun. I wish I was able to do this when he first came, but my tools weren’t sharpened yet.”

Now that Meram’s skills are so Ginsu-sharp that you can cut any MLS defense with them, he shares credit with the venerable veteran in the middle of the park.

“He gives me a lot of confidence,” Meram said. “We have a relationship off the field now as well, and I think that helps us.”

*****

As part of the postgame recovery process, Josh Williams and Higuain sat in neighboring cold tubs. Williams took the opportunity to impress upon his teammate the magnitude of his achievement.

“I congratulated him and told him that those are incredible names to be surrounded by,” Williams said of Higuian’s 40/40 mates Brian McBride and Jeff Cunningham. “I told him McBride was my favorite player growing up. And Jeff, I got to watch him and study him when he came back (in 2011), and seeing his work ethic and the way he did things around goal after training, it’s easy to see why he is there.”

Finlay also reflected on the other members of the club.

“What’s unique about that is that you just named two all-out strikers,” Finlay said. “Jeff maybe played a little bit of wing, but it’s kind of incredible for those two guys to have those kinds of assist numbers. That’s impressive stuff.”

Given Higuain’s position on the pitch, he seems like a more natural fit for the 40/40 Club.

“It’s a credit to Pipa’s work ethic as well,” Williams said. “He’s tireless and he’s always working on things after training.”

For that reason, his teammates see bigger numbers in Higuain’s future.

“I’ll come out and say it that I think he’s got 50 in him,” Finlay said. “If he keeps going this way, there’s no doubt that in the next year we’re talking about 50/50.”

50/50 would be a first in Crew SC history, but Williams went even higher. At least originally, back in 2012, when Higuain set the league on fire right out of the gate, especially after that two free kick goal game against New England.

“I thought he was going to score a thousand,” Williams said.

So wait, is the 40/40 Club actually a disappointment?

“He’s let me down,” Williams said with a laugh. “I was thinking a thousand. The Thousand/Thousand Club, has that been reached? I thought Pipa would be the first one there. But no, 40/40 is an amazing accomplishment and it couldn’t happen to a better guy. I love that guy. I told him congratulations and that it’s an awesome club to be a part of.”

*****

Berhalter feels that Higuain is entering into the inner circle of Columbus greats.

“As far as I’m concerned, he would go down as one of the better players, if not the best that ever played for [Crew SC], with another Argentine and a forward and maybe a defender.”

The Argentine would be Schelotto. The forward would be McBride. The defender, he clarified, would be Circle of Honor inductee Frankie Hejduk, although Chad Marshall should be a part of that discussion as well.

The thing that separates those legends from Higuain at the moment is a trophy. His cupboard is not entirely bare, as he tallied eight goals and nine assists for the 2015 MLS Eastern Conference champions. I’m not a big believer in trophies being the primary determinant of a player’s greatness in team sports, but outright winning one of the three domestic competitions would give Higuain’s already prominent stature an even bigger boost. Trophies aren’t a minimum requirement for greatness, but they help more than anything to cement and/or magnify it.

A Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup date with FC Cincinnati looms. As does another potential crack at the MLS Cup playoffs this fall. These are the team goals that Pipa chases. Becoming a Massive Champion is the club membership that he covets.

*****

As I wound down my last interview, Pipa finally ambled into the empty locker room after his customary postgame treatment. All of the other reporters were gone. It would have been a golden opportunity to have an exclusive chat on the night of his milestone, but I didn’t see the point of bugging him about it. He had already given such a definitive statement to Alex Stec on television.

Numbers are numbers.

He doesn’t look too much at stats.

But a lot of us do. And we’ll celebrate Pipa’s milestone for him while he pursues bigger and better celebrations with his teammates.

Questions? Comments? Think Josh will be disappointed to realize that even Landon Donovan only got 14.5% / 13.6% of the way to the fabled Thousand/Thousand Club? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk 
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