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Crew SC | Managing Federico Higuain's health a top priority

The Columbus Dispatch — Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

May 19--Federico Higuain heard many of the theories and questions surrounding his health last year.

The designated player for Crew SC missed six games after hernia surgery in June and six games from August to October as he dealt with abdominal pain.

Four goals and three assists in 20 games made 2016 the least productive of his first four full seasons in Major League Soccer. Many wondered whether Higuain, who turned 32 in October, had permanently lost a step and questioned his ability to return to the form of a midfielder who had become integral to the Crew's success since his arrival in 2012.

After logging four goals and four assists in his first 11 games this season, Higuain chuckled this week when reminded of the questions surrounding his long-term health.

"I think the analysis was bad, but it's OK. It's part of the game," Higuain said. "I understand."

Higuain has missed just one game of the Crew's first 12 this season, sitting out for a 1-0 loss at the Chicago Fire last month because of ankle soreness. He recently presented a fairly compelling counterpoint to an injury-marred 2016: three starts and 244 minutes of action over eight days that wrapped up Saturday with a 3-2 win over the Montreal Impact.

"He's another one who wants to play for the team, and he's also in a great moment, so it's kind of hard to pull him back off the field and it's us being careful," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. "I think the fact that we did rest him against Chicago gave me a little bit of relief that he doesn't have all the minutes (spent), but it's a situation we have to manage throughout the year."

Higuain didn't offer many specifics as to when he began to feel his health return over the offseason. But he said Wednesday, "I feel good." When that has been been the case during his time with the Crew, Higuain generally has had the results to match.

"When I'm healthy, I think I've always done well for this team," Higuain said. "I mean, it wasn't just because I played bad (last year). I am trying to be very realistic with my situation. When you have an injury and you can't play at your level because you are not ready, it's hard, but I'm a guy who likes to be on the pitch most of the time."

His desire to be on the field included a long stretch of 2016, when Higuain was medically cleared to play but in pain and not moving like his usual self.

"My coach asks me if I'm OK, I always say I'm OK because I love this game," he said.

As Higuain and those around him saw it, the bad "analysis" of a lost 2016 stemmed from one long-term injury being blown up to create a larger injury history and a perception that Higuain's age and mileage had caught up with him.

"I think people think he's older and he had an injury and they're equating it with injuries, which it's not," Berhalter said. "He, for the most part, has been healthy for a long stretch of games and he takes tremendous care of himself. We have no questions about, 'Does he take care of himself? Is he an injury-prone player?' We don't think that at all."

Higuain said his process of preparing for games changes every year, but he credited high performance director Steve Tashjian and strength and conditioning coach Brook Hamilton for their efforts in helping him stay game-ready. The equation of keeping the central attacking midfielder at his best will include rest like it did against Chicago, Berhalter said, but there are no precise totals for minutes or games by which the team will monitor Higuain.

"I don't think it's that exact of a science. We rested (Higuain) partially in the Chicago game, so we got him some time there and we'll continue to do that throughout the year," Berhalter said.

In Crew SC's high- and low-mileage stretches alike this season, Higuain's presence has had an effect that captain Wil Trapp summed up concisely: "When he's on the field, we're a better team."

aerickson@dispatch.com

@AEricksonCD

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