MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Four ways Inter Miami CF have rescued their 2021 season

Inter Miami CF went nearly two-and-a-half months without a win from May towards the end of July. Things were bleak.

A blowout 5-0 loss to the New England Revolution on July 21 was the new nadir of a season that threatened to sink lower still. Since then, though, things have changed.

They picked up their first win in months shortly thereafter, a 2-1 comeback result against CF Montréal on July 31. They've since stormed up the table and are six games unbeaten (five wins, one draw) heading into their Friday night showdown with the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

Once a perceived longshot to make the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, they're now just outside of an Eastern Conference postseason spot with a game in hand. Their latest triumph was a 1-0 win at Toronto FC, their fourth straight shutout and one that included a 95th-minute penalty kick from Christian Makoun.

“We did not play well at all, and I was angry, but the pride in which they keep going until the end, keep fighting, battling, finding a way to win," head coach Phil Neville said after. "I don’t think there are too many teams in the whole of the MLS that have scored as many goals late as we have. We’re keeping our feet firmly on the ground. I know we can play better and raise the standards.”

Inter Miami are firmly in the playoff race, a notion that would have been laughed at two months ago.

Here’s how they’ve done it.

DPs providing match-winning moments

Gonzalo Higuain and Rodolfo Pizarro are finding ways to directly earn points for Miami.

Higuain has four goals and four assists while playing in 10 games of their 11-game run. Pizarro, meanwhile, came through with some timely goal contributions after a slow start to the season.

Of Pizarro’s modest three goals and two assists on the season, all but one assist came during the month of August.

These are the contributions Miami hoped for from their two attacking Designated Players. They will be key to staying above the playoff line or falling back below. Here’s what Neville said back in preseason:

“We’re developing a really good team, a really good roster, but you always need the icing and cherry on top of the cake. Gonzalo and Rodolfo are players who will, if they perform, ultimately will make you successful, to make the playoffs and challenge for titles.”

Maximizing soft part of the schedule

As Neville himself made clear, the team remains a work in progress. And, despite the praise, it's important to add additional context on this run:

  • Miami’s last five wins are all against teams below the playoff line
  • Four of those five have come against the bottom three in the Eastern Conference
  • Three of those four wins against the bottom of the East have come from game-winning goals scored in the 90th minute or later

That is not a sustainable, predictable measure of success over a large sample size.

Since the blowout loss to New England, only the Revs have earned more points in MLS than Miami, though the soft schedule and underlying numbers show warning signs.

Miami have still been below average in expected goals against (14.12) though have conceded just nine goals, the fifth-fewest over the span. Their xGA minus goals conceded is -5.12. Only Sporting Kansas City (-9.89!) have outperformed their xGA to a greater effect. It’s a similar story in attack. Even buoyed by some penalties, they are outperforming their xG by 2.17, the third-most in the league over that span.

Sports are a bottom-line industry, of course. Picking up points is what matters most, though there is worthwhile context to Miami’s recent run. Regardless, they’re almost above the playoff line right now.

More good news: Seven of their 11 remaining games come against teams currently below the playoff line or barely in. Three of those are against Columbus and Atlanta, some of their fiercest competitors to stay above water.

Miami looked dead and buried after the New England blowout, their sixth consecutive loss. Being firmly in the race with 11 matches to go should be commended, irrespective of context.

Gregore’s captaincy, partnership with Matuidi

After Neville made Gregore their sole captain at the end of July, Miami have gone 7-1-2. Correlation versus causation warnings apply, but it's clearly one of the reasons for an uptick in form.

Off the field, it’s one of the levers Neville seems to have pulled to help the locker room. That is not easy when the club went a couple of months without a win and was a long way away from the playoff line.

On the field, past the armband, all the offseason assumptions of how Gregore could be the perfect complement next to Blaise Matuidi in midfield have come to fruition. The stability of shifting to three at the back has helped as well, giving Matuidi less ground to cover and less defensive responsibility.

A 27-year-old defensive midfielder signed from Brazilian side Bahia + a former Juventus star and World Cup winner with France = a solid foundation.

Defensive additions in the summer

Inter Miami clearly focused on defense this summer, adding goalkeeper Nick Marsman, left back Kieran Gibbs and center back Ventura Alvarado.

They have since become harder to beat.

Miami have had zero errors leading to goals since the New England loss, only one of eight MLS clubs who can say that over that timeframe, and just two errors leading to shots, tied for sixth-fewest in the league. While they still rank in the top third in terms of yellow cards, they haven’t picked up a single red card.

These are positive building blocks moving forward, though the investigation into the club’s transfer dealings in 2020 will leave them without $2,271,250 in allocation dollars for 2022 and 2023. It remains to be seen how much flexibility they’ll have. Mark-Anthony Kaye (Colorado Rapids), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal) and Tim Parker (Houston Dynamo FC) were acquired for a combined total of $2.2 million in allocation within the past year. That’s how much Miami will be without for each of the next two seasons.

Still, chief soccer officer and sporting director Chris Henderson was previously among a Seattle Sounders front office that found value for years, and Miami will once again be one of the highest-spending clubs in MLS next year. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible to find success despite the sanctions they're confronting.

And going into year three as a 2021 playoff team will ensure the mood around the club is a whole lot brighter than looked likely just a few weeks ago.