Inter Miami CF striker Gonzalo Higuain needed a fresh start. The 32-year-old Argentine wanted to take control of the next step in his career and rekindle his love for the game after almost 14 years playing at the highest level in Europe.
Landing at Real Madrid from River Plate aged 19, winning three La Liga titles with Los Blancos and later three Scudettos (Serie A titles) with Juventus, Higuain experienced highs like few others from the Americas have over the last decade or so, but it wasn’t all rosy. Coming so close to winning silverware with Argentina and falling short in the 2014 World Cup, as well as the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals, stung.
There’s also the often-repeated criticism that he doesn’t show up on the big occasion. To make matters worse, the goals started to dry up in England on loan with Chelsea in 2019, and again last season at Juventus.
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It was time to move on.
“I think that the football player is like a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola,” said Higuain in an interview with ESPN’s Fernando Palomo. “They pour it out, pour it out, pour it out, and then when there’s no more Coca-Cola, what do you do with it? You crush it, stamp on it, and throw it away.”
“They squeeze you to death, and that’s why I wanted to get outside of that bubble a bit.”
Enter Inter Miami CF. The team co-owned by David Beckham, Higuain’s former teammate at AC Milan, offered an opportunity for Higuain to get out of that bubble and contribute to an exciting, albeit infant, project in South Florida. He signed in mid-September amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the postseason looking like a distant prospect at that stage, El Pipita has now helped his side reach Friday’s play-in round of the MLS Cup playoffs against fellow expansion side Nashville SC (watch on ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
“The last year, I didn’t enjoy elite soccer like it deserves to be enjoyed,” said Higuain. “I think that something had to change. I was saturated with the pressure of the elite, of constantly demonstrating what I’d done in football, which wasn’t bad.”
The critics may say Higuain wants comfort or an easy life. Others would argue that the player’s general happiness is of primary concern and is the most likely route to inspiring the kind of performances in MLS that saw Higuain named Juventus’ MVP of the Year in both 2017 and 2018. Higuain wanted to feel something different, to reignite the love for the game that he admitted has given him “much more” than he had dreamed of as a child.
“[MLS] is not a league to come to retire or anything like that,” said Higuain. “Obviously, I’m in the last part of my career, and I’m here to enjoy it and to get back my love for football. That’s the first thing I’m looking for.”
Higuain did his research, stressing it wasn’t only Beckham’s influence that saw him move to MLS, but the project as a whole. The Argentine’s head was turned when French World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi made the move in August, as well as by countrymen Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Nicolas Figal joining the South Florida franchise. And with one Designated Player spot open, he saw clearly how he could be a difference-maker as Inter Miami’s No. 9.
“I saw a team that created a lot of chances,” explained Higuain. “I don’t have the data handy about how many teams create more chances than us; I’m talking goal-scoring situations, not possession. If we aren’t in the top three or four in the conference, we’re there or thereabouts. That motivated me to come in at my position.”
The early signs off the field have been positive in terms of Higuain settling and enjoying himself again.
“I’m starting to enjoy the trainings, the games again,” said Higuain. “It makes me happy because I needed it. I would have liked to have left Europe in a different way, in front of a full stadium, but it happened this way because of the pandemic. I don’t regret it. I left as a champion in my final year. And now it’s time to enjoy.”
Part of that enjoyment has been reuniting with his older brother Federico, who has played in MLS since 2012 — spending eight seasons with Columbus Crew SC — and then joined Inter Miami from D.C. United on Oct. 10.
“For many years we’ve seen each other for two or three days a year, and only then when we could, because [Gonzalo] was a lot busier than me competing practically all year,” said Federico in a video released by the club. “[It brings] happiness, obviously, to share time again, to play for this club… it’s spectacular to represent this club and be alongside him.”
On the field, it hasn’t fully clicked as yet for Gonzalo. Only one goal in nine games isn’t exactly a barnstorming start to life in MLS. Higuain blasted a penalty high and wide on his debut against the Philadelphia Union with his team 2-0 down in the 76th minute, and was then involved in a pushing and shoving match with Union players. There’s a sense that Higuain has his eye on getting one back on the Union, whom Inter Miami will face if it can get past Nashville on Friday.
“I didn’t have a dream debut, but football allowed me to help Inter Miami qualify for the playoffs in its first year as a franchise,” he stated. “I don’t believe many teams have done that and football gives you those moments. You can talk about the debut, but if we qualify against Nashville, which will be a hard game, then we have revenge against Philadelphia around the corner.”
The numbers behind Higuain’s performances so far are encouraging, even if the chemistry with teammates hasn’t fully clicked. Higuain is second in total shots taken (35) behind only Lewis Morgan (56) for the season among Inter Miami players, despite only playing 801 minutes. His Expected Goals (xG) is 4.18, again second overall on the team to Rodolfo Pizarro (5.73). In raw shots in the league as a whole, only NYC FC’s Valentin Castellanos (48) has more than Higuain (35) since the Argentine made his debut on Sept. 28.
In other words, only scoring one goal may stand out as a negative for Higuain so far, but there aren’t any underlying reasons to believe he won’t be prolific moving forward.
In terms of marketing, Higuain’s Inter Miami shirt was the sixth-highest seller in MLS this year, a positive sign that his signing has connected with fans in South Florida even amid the coronavirus crisis. Inter Miami coach Diego Alonso — a former No. 9 himself in a 16-year playing career across Spain, Mexico, Uruguay and China — said Higuain “landed, got changed and played” and has been impressed with his new DP despite the lack of a real preseason.
“It’s very difficult, it’s a different league and we have to have patience,” explained Alonso. “Gonzalo is a great player, top-class, and he’s not underestimating it in any way.”
The Argentine striker has captained the team on occasions since joining and says he is more of a leader by example, rather than someone who shouts and screams at his teammates. But his competitive spirit and desire to succeed was on display when Higuain was sent off on Oct. 17 after Inter Miami’s loss to Montreal Impact for remonstrating with the officials after the final whistle.
Higuain wouldn’t be the first star to come into Major League Soccer without the right attitude, but that ordeal seemed to highlight that this Inter Miami project matters to him, and Alonso has been encouraged by what he has seen so far.
“It’s very positive,” said Alonso, talking to ESPN’s Jorge Ramos y Su Banda. “He’s phenomenal, a team player, a good person, he works hard and he’s not egotistical and that’s a bonus for a DP, for a player with his quality. He’s involved, committed and not egotistical and doesn’t seek to be the center of attention, it’s an extra plus, gold dust for a coach and we are very happy.”
The final reckoning on Higuain’s first season in MLS will come down to what happens in the playoffs. Friday’s play-in round game against Nashville comes after a two-week break for Inter Miami, something Higuain doesn’t enjoy, but sees the advantage of in terms of being fully prepared.
“I don’t think anyone will want to play us because we are a competitive team,” he said.
Higuain’s goal isn’t to simply go deep in the playoffs, or get an element of revenge against the Union: it’s to lift the debutant franchise to a historic first title.
“God gave us the chance to get into the playoffs, with a lot of results [falling our way] and we have the chance to make history,” said Higuain. “I don’t know how many teams have won MLS in their first year.”
The answer is one: the Chicago Fire back in 1998 when the MLS landscape looked very different. The odds are against Inter Miami, but then again this is 2020. Inter Miami is much improved compared to earlier in the year and a happier Higuain certainly has the scoring pedigree to spur a surprise or two in the playoffs.