Going into the 2022 season, not much was expected of Inter Miami CF as they readied for their third MLS campaign.
From the outside, expectations around the South Florida side were tepid at best, as they'd turned over nearly their entire roster from the 2021 season, which ended without a berth in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Considering their lackluster record over their first two years in the league, combined with a five-game winless run to start 2022 (0W-4L-1D and -10 goal differential), head coach Phil Neville admitted he doesn't even blame the prognosticators for not putting much stock in his team's postseason aspirations.
Proving them wrong
Fast forward to an early-fall make-up game, and Inter Miami have officially clinched a playoff spot that once was considered a longshot. They sealed it in emphatic fashion, blitzing Orlando in front of a raucous crowd of home supporters, led by a brace from Gonzalo Higuaín and Leo Campana's incredible chip 35 seconds in before Ariel Lassiter lasered home a left-footer.
It was a proof-of-concept moment for Neville and sporting director Chris Henderson, who joined the club from Seattle Sounders FC in January 2021 and was a key architect in re-shaping the club's identity and culture. It required faith amid plenty of growing pains, which Neville said was provided by an ownership group that believed in his vision even through a difficult start.
"First thing's first, I think in the first season I got incredible backing by the ownership. Because they could have got rid of me," said Neville, who joined in January 2021 after leading the England women's national team. "It wasn't pretty, it wasn't good, I didn't like what I was seeing myself. But I think they had incredible belief in me, in my staff, in Chris. I think what me and Chris did, we set out the vision that we wanted. And that was to rip the heart out of the team and bring in the players that we wanted.
"And you think about the achievement of those players – they've performed miracles, really. ... I suppose we've built a proper football club this year. And along the way, the start of the season was very difficult, but I go back to: Never once did the ownership wobble. Never once did I suppose me and Chris think that we were not heading in the right direction. We just needed a bit of time and trust and we got that and the players have been sensational."
To reach this point, Miami have rattled off a four-game winning streak, powered in part by Higuaín's continued electric form. The Argentine legend doesn't look like a player nearing retirement, as he announced earlier this week, as he's currently riding easily the best form of his MLS career.
Over Miami's last five matches, Higuaín has erupted for seven goals, while accounting for a ridiculous 14 goals and two assists in his last 15 games.
"He's virtually carried the football club into the playoffs," Neville said. "And he's doing his job really well.
"In the back of my mind, I keep thinking: Have a go again! Why would you want to give up football when you have that happiness? He said the other day it's the happiest it's ever been in football. What a compliment that is to myself, the staff and Inter Miami."
Added Higuaín: "I've said it before: This league and this club have given me again the desire to play football. I'm living a wonderful year. I've had to work hard. I was a substitute earlier in the year; I had to face situations that I had never faced in my career. And I knew that it depended on me, it was for me to take my opportunity and that's what I kept working and the way I've been recognized today is because of the hard work and sacrifice that I've put in."
Why not us?
The playoffs are all about getting hot at the right time, and few teams are more in-form than Inter Miami. They're now fifth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Herons can still host a Round One match at DRV PNK Stadium, should they win Sunday's Decision Day home matchup against second-place CF Montréal (2:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). In that scenario, they'd also need New York Red Bulls to lose to Charlotte FC and relinquish their grip on fourth place.
"I want a home playoff [game]," Neville said. "That's what we've got to do because you think about teams that have [been] successful in the playoffs are the ones that play at home. So, that stacks heavily on our mind."
Even with their current form, Miami don't figure to be a popular pick in the East, which counts the Philadelphia Union, Montréal and New York City FC among the perceived frontrunners. But with how his team is playing at the moment, Neville believes they'll stack up well against just about anybody.
"I'd say that we're the most in-form team in the league," he said. "Four wins out of four, I think. I see no reason. We've overcome bigger obstacles than this, that's for sure. We've overcome so much this year: People writing us off, people questioning us, doubts from outside and some from within. And they've just kept going.
"I see no reason why this team should stop now. They're on the brink of something really special."