There have been several cases in MLS history of star players that have arrived to the league from Europe and struggled to perform in Year 1 before looking much more like themselves in Season 2. Thierry Henry is an example, Frank Lampard is too, and Tim Cahill another.
The hope from Inter Miami is that Gonzalo Higuain will soon be the latest.
Inter Miami is on the brink of starting its sophomore season, and one of the players the team wants to see take it up a notch, or two or three, is Higuain. The lethal striker was anything but during his first MLS campaign, producing just one goal and two assists in nine appearances and even that lone finish came off a free kick and not the run of play. He also missed a penalty in his debut, got a red card in another match, and was absent from the team’s lone playoff game after contracting COVID-19.
Safe to say it was not the the year most had envisioned for Higuain when he signed a Designated Player deal that reportedly made him the highest-paid player in MLS last September.
“I arrived late after the season started, I had to adapt quickly to new players, new ideas, another league that is totally distinct, other game methodologies, and I suffered,” Higuain said in Spanish on Thursday. “I thought I was going to adapt better, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be. It is a difficult league, it is a league that is strong physically, and I struggled.”
The 33-year-old Argentine may be honest in admitting his adjustment period did not go as well as he had expected, but both he and new head coach Phil Neville chalked up his woes in front of goal, at least partially, to a dose of misfortune. They cited either goalkeepers making great saves, last-ditch efforts from defenders, or Higuain being denied by the post or crossbar.
Higuain also agreed with the notion that he on the whole lacked many quality scoring opportunities in 2020, a possible byproduct of the Herons’ poor collective performances during an expansion season that saw the team finish in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
“It is true that I did not have many clear chances,” said Higuain, who is rocking a heavy beard and shaved head look these days. “I think figuring out (how to best use me) is a role of the coach, but it is to have me drop as little as possible so I do not end up far away from goal and try to work so that the ball arrives in a goal-scoring opportunity so that I do not get away from my strongest area, which is in the final third.
“That is a matter of work, Phil is working on it, and hopefully this year it bears fruit.”
Neville concurs that keeping Higuain in higher positions is best for Inter Miami. The center forward dropped into deeper spots often last year under then-head coach Diego Alonso, though it is unclear whether that was by tactical design or because Higuain chose to do so in order to try and better find the game.
And possibly saving the best for last:
Blaise Matuidi blessed us with this golden nugget that will probably be the loosest you will ever see the usually-stoic Gonzalo Higuain, who does a rendition of Luis Fonsi's Despacito. 🎶🕺🎶
— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) March 29, 2021
Whatever the case is, expect the veteran attacker to be in the penalty area more often in 2021. The idea is try to get him on the end of things as much as possible so that he can make more use of the finishing skills that saw him score goals in bunches in Europe and with Argentina’s national team earlier in his career.
“I think the things that we have been working a lot on with Gonzalo is the fact that let’s get him into the box a lot more than what we saw last year,” said Neville. “In terms of when the crosses are coming in from either the left or the right that he is in the right areas to score the goals that we know he can score.
“I think he loves to get involved in the play. Him and Rodolfo (Pizarro) link up really well dropping into those little spaces, but ultimately what we have said to him is when the balls are coming into the box, when those chances are being created, he needs to be in that area.”
If Higuain can play anywhere close to his best, Inter Miami should be noticeably improved this season. The team struggled in the goal-scoring department in 2020, finishing with just 25 tallies in 24 games, and will likely need a boost there this year in order to have a shot at making serious noise.
What can give Inter Miami some added confidence in Higuain raising his level is that there have been multiple big-name players who have enjoyed much better second MLS campaigns after arriving from Europe midway through Year 1. Experiencing a proper preseason tends to help in learning about new teammates, coaches and tactics, as can having a more clear understanding of what traveling and playing in the league entails.
One example of that was Henry with the New York Red Bulls. He recorded 14 goals and four assists in his sophomore MLS campaign after producing just two and three in his first. Cahill did something similar with the same team, providing 11 tallies and five helpers a year after turning in one and three. Frank Lampard with New York City FC was another case of that, delivering 12 goals and three assists after having three and one in his introductory season.
For Inter Miami, getting Higuain to become the latest star to do something like that is a significant goal for 2021.
“This year now that I know the league I am going to work on improving in what I need to improve on, in trying to be a positive leader, a leader that accompanies the team to achieve its objectives,”s aid Higuain. “Obviously in my mind is the idea to continue playing how I have played all my life. Try to come here and have people remember my stint in MLS for what I achieved in my career.
“I did not come here to be just another player or to vacation. On the contrary, I came here to take Inter Miami to the top. To achieve that in the institution’s second year as a club in MLS would be something that is very big, so I am focused on helping my teammates accomplish that.”