A long-running philosophical debate in MLS, and soccer in general, can be boiled down to one question: What’s more decisive in big moments, individual quality or a sturdy collective?
Friday’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Play-In Match between expansion siblings Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF distills this topic quite nicely.
The Tennesseans have been very much a team-first outfit, passing on big-ticket superstar signings in favor of value and building their team around a stout defensive structure.
Meanwhile Miami have taken a flashier approach, as befits their SoFla surroundings, signing Gonzalo Higuain to one of the league’s most lucrative contracts and reeling in other big fish like Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro, the latter of whom is being ferried home from Mexico national team duty on a trans-Atlantic charter flight this week to bypass the need for a quarantine period. And that’s before we get to their Young Designated Players Julian Carranza and Matias Pellegrini. Or Lewis Morgan, the Scottish winger who’s arguably been their best player. Or Diego Alonso, their distinguished head coach.
Nashville’s "Moneyball"-inspired methods reaped a markedly better regular season, earning them the right to host this match. Inter were frustratingly inconsistent all year and had to scratch and claw just to squeeze into the postseason, aided by a serendipitous sequence of results on Decision Day.
As important as home-field advantage is in MLS – a factor that’s persisted even in the COVID-19 era of empty or mostly-empty stadiums – it’s not entirely wrong to suggest that none of that backstory matters now. Because we’re entering a single-game-series knockout tournament, and the Herons can still deploy an impressive arsenal of match-winning talent.
To quote my distinguished colleague Steve Zakuani:
“These are the MLS playoffs and anything can happen, especially with the kind of offensive quality that Miami possess. Rodolfo Pizarro, Lewis Morgan and, of course, Higuain have the quality to win this game for Alonso’s men.”
Note: Alas, neither Higuain nor his elder brother Federico were fit to take part in Friday's match, robbing the Herons of key attacking weapons.
Elite talent wins lots of big games in this league. Just look at how the likes of Robbie Keane, Sebastian Giovinco, Josef Martinez and Nicolas Lodeiro have stepped up under the brightest spotlights, earning hardware and showing why they make millions. It’s why the Designated Player rule remains such a watershed development in MLS history 14 years after its implementation.
Star power doesn’t just sell tickets and jerseys; it’s a cheat code in situations where decisive moments matter most. Create and exploit situations where your best players can make the difference, and everything else fades into the background.
Then again, “the team is the star” is a recurring theme here, too. A long list of well-crafted teams have outpaced pricier adversaries through the years, the most recent example being the 2020 Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia Union. Even the most famous DPs typically can’t achieve great things without a solid support structure around them (witness David Beckham’s first two MLS seasons). NSC will surely point to this as they aim to make a deep run this month.
The cold, hard truth is that Miami’s stars haven’t yet performed up to expectations. Higuain still has just one goal and two assists in 803 MLS minutes. Matuidi hasn’t been quite the dominant engine-room presence many of us thought he’d be. Pizarro has been productive but rarely spectacular. The Young DPs are still finding their feet. The group as a whole went 7W-13L-3D.
They can turn all that into a distant, easily-forgotten prelude with some big-game heroics this month, starting on Friday. It’s a five-game season now. String together a few wins, and Inter can write a whole new story about their inaugural season.