We’re living in unprecedented times, and Wednesday’s MLS is Back opener between Orlando City and Inter Miami duly reflected that reality.
From the solemn Black Players for Change-led pregame demonstration in honor of George Floyd to the inevitable learning curve as players, coaches and viewers adjusted to the new setting at ESPN Wide World of Sports, we were reminded that life has changed significantly in the three months since an MLS match took place.
Both teams eventually found their footing, and even provided some injury-time drama to provide a memorable end to the league’s first meeting between Florida teams since 2001. Here are three thoughts on the game.
1. Busca la forma, Leones
Busca la forma (“find the way”) was a mantra of Oscar Pareja’s during his landmark tenure in charge of FC Dallas, a philosophy of tenacity and accountability that reaped a U.S. Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield double in 2016 and shaped that club’s identity in lasting ways. And on Wednesday El Profe’s new team showed signs of their own purple-tinged version of the concept as they banked their first win under the Colombian.
Orlando were not dominant in this one. As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle notes, Inter Miami posed difficult questions with their shape and movement and the Lions didn’t always have the answers, particularly when they got carved open moments into the second half.
But over the 90 minutes they weathered the rough spots, came to grips with the challenge and conjured up the key moments needed to bag all three points. Wide men Nani and Chris Mueller were the standouts, one a global superstar on the back half of his career trajectory and the other an unheralded draft pick who has doggedly defied expectations as a pro.
“We have a lot of joy,” said Pareja, a leader in both spiritual and tactical terms. “It's a reward for the players, what they did on the field. They did not just work, but they did deserve the victory. I thought they were the best team on the pitch and we are proud.”
2. A frightening flashpoint
Inter have now been hard done by in all three games of their brief existence, playing well and showcasing clear ideas and quality only to be undone down the stretch.
They’ll look back bitterly at the latest watershed moment in the 51st minute when Dom Dwyer’s flailing arm appeared to catch Andres Reyes in the throat as they scrapped for a long ball, leaving the Colombian defender writhing on the turf in visceral agony and eventually exiting on a stretcher.
“It completely changed the match,” said an angry Luis Robles afterward, and episodes like this can haunt a team. The sight of Juan Agudelo grabbing the paramedics’ stretcher to hurry it towards his fallen teammate spoke volumes.
It’s another piece of adversity for the expansion side, and in the aftermath I expect to see heightened attention towards Dwyer’s physicality – and the referees’ approach to such clashes in general – in the days ahead.
3) Decisions for El Tornado
Given all the above, I find it hard to be overly critical of Miami. This is a thoughtfully constructed squad – if incomplete, by their own admission – and some of their passages of play were a joy to watch, including the buildup to Agudelo’s opener. But like many other newcomers to the league over the years, Inter were harshly punished for their spurned chances and moments of slackness at the back.
Whether it was due to tired legs and minds or basic mismatches, Nani exploited that defensive naivete on both goals and his late winner will be particularly infuriating to manager Diego Alonso (pictured above and dubbed El Tornado during his playing days), whose overall frustration was palpable in his terse responses at the postgame press conference.
He and his staff have work ahead as they seek the optimal shapes and partnerships to maximize the talent at their disposal, and the potential loss of Reyes – who was excellent before his untimely departure – adds another item to that list.
An injury issue limited Rodolfo Pizarro’s involvement to 32 minutes off the bench, and Lee Nguyen logged just 12 minutes due to fitness concerns; their combinations and understanding in the fleeting time they had together were intriguing and deserve a longer run. Meanwhile, a more consistent threat may be needed from the wide areas which are so key in Alonso’s preferred game model.
The deployment of Agudelo in his preferred No. 9 role was encouraging given how often he’s been shunted around to various positions over the past few seasons in New England, and it paid off, even if he missed an inviting sitter at the near post in this game’s early stages. He still shows intoxicating glimpses of the world-beating talent that wowed us when he burst onto the scene as a teenager; I’m watching closely to see if Alonso & Co. can coax sustained attacking productivity out of the well-traveled 27-year-old.