The past two and a half weeks were torturous for Inter Miami forward Gonzalo Higuain, as he mourned the death of his mother, who battled cancer for five years.
He struggled to focus on his job upon returning from her funeral in Argentina. But after some soul searching and a heartfelt chat with coach Phil Neville, Higuain rededicated himself in her memory. He promised Neville he would score two goals in each of the next few games.
And that he did, scoring a pair of goals, including the 85th-minute game-winner, in a 3-2 road victory over FC Cincinnati on Sunday. Inter Miami moved up to sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 2-2-2 record and spoiled the day for the home team, which was celebrating the grand opening of TQL Stadium.
“Losing your mother is very painful, especially with the relationship I had with her,” Higuain said after the game. “I had just scored against Philadelphia and Los Angeles, was in a good place, but that tragic news came and hurt me a lot. My head was not 100 percent on what I had to do. But I knew I had to click because I had to help the team and help myself get out of that situation.
“I know my Mom is watching from heaven and she wants me to play soccer, to be happy, to score goals. I spoke to (Neville) and we had an important conversation about how I had a poor performance in the last game, but I’m a human being. I’m not a robot who can enter a game and play well after what I lived through.”
Neville added: “Gonzalo has been suffering. I think you saw that in the last couple of games. It’s easy to criticize professional footballers without understanding what is going on in their personal life and their mental state...I spoke to him the past few days about how to deal with losing a parent. As a manager, you have got to have these conversations. It is not about football. You’ve got to help the player.”
Higuain dedicated the two goals to his mother and the rest of his family. His first goal came in the 38th minute after a back-heel pass from his older brother, Federico, who started for the first time in two years. The two brothers embraced after the goal.
Higuain’s game-winner was off a low cross from Lewis Morgan and came three minutes after FC Cincinnati tied the game 2-2 on a header from Nick Hagglund off a corner kick. Miami led early when Brek Shea poked in a Gregore cross in the seventh minute, was up 2-0 at halftime, but Cincinnati made a game of it in the second half with goals by Alvaro Barreal and Hagglund.
“The two goals are mainly for my Mom, for my family, my daughter, they are my sustenance at this difficult moment, also my brother, and my teammates,” said Higuain, who has scored four goals this season.
Sunday’s victory felt even sweeter for Higuain because Federico started and played 80 minutes. Federico had made a significant impact off the bench game after game, and Neville decided to give him the starting nod over Rodolfo Pizarro.
It was not an easy decision, as Pizarro, a member of Mexico’s national team, is the second-highest paid player on the team at $3.35 million a year, while the elder Higuain will make $81,375 this season.
“Fede’s earned the right to play,” Neville said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Neville said he told Pizarro he wants him to have the same influence on the game off the bench that Federico Higuain did in the previous games. Pizarro entered the game in the final minutes and nearly scored.
“Regardless of who you are or what your standing is with the team, we send out the best team to win the game,” Neville said. “Rodolfo’s going to be a big, big player for us. I’m convinced of that. Sometimes you need to be brought out to be put back in so you can have more of an effect.”
In addition to the Higuains, Neville singled out the play of goalkeeper John McCarthy. “Gonzalo got the plaudits, but John was probably the man of the match for me,” the coach said. “His saves, his composure, kicking ability. I know we signed Nick Marsman, and there will be great challenge for that position, but Johnny’s really impressed everyone.”
Inter Miami made a statement Sunday after Wednesday’s humbling home loss to Montreal.
“Over the last three days, we had some real big conversations about where we want to go and how far we want to push,” Neville said. “Do we want to just be average…or do we want to really go for it and become a team that wants to go places? The players took responsibility and ultimately, at 2-2 with six or seven minutes to go, the big players stood up and won us the game.”
Inter Miami is back on the road Saturday for a 6 p.m. game against the Chicago Fire.