Inter Miami a playoff team in 2022? Phil Neville has no doubts

Inter Miami CF head coach Phil Neville freely notes they endured a “real poor start” to the 2022 MLS season and had to “take some criticism.” After all, it’s hard to argue against a 0W-4L-1D start.

But now? The Herons are on a 5W-2L-2D run and sit seventh in the Eastern Conference standings – a postseason spot if the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs started today. For a squad that underwent near-wholesale roster changes this past offseason, it’s come together far more quickly than most expected.

This uptick in form, with a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday night, has Neville aiming high.

“I challenged them before the game about the belief I have in them, but sometimes the belief that they don’t have in themselves,” Neville said. “And I see them as a playoff team. Tonight was that step to the playoffs I felt. It was a pivotal moment.”

Inter Miami have made the MLS playoffs before, squeezing in as the Eastern Conference’s 10th and final team during their 2020 expansion season. But that came amid an expanded field after the COVID-19 pandemic created an imbalanced schedule, and in 2021 they finished 11th in the East’s table (seven points adrift).

Yet Neville’s not short on confidence as his new-look squad further jells and gets leading performances from striker Leonardo Campana. The Wolverhampton Wanderers loanee is now on 7g/2a in 14 matches after scoring vs. Portland, form that’s earned him a spot in World Cup-bound Ecuador’s impending June camp.

How far could they rise? Neville’s remarkably optimistic.

“Five, six weeks ago I told them I wanted to win the league,” Neville said. “And sometimes you’ve got to set the bar that high that maybe they didn’t believe it. I did because I believed in them. And they looked at me in a funny way, which they normally do anyway. But I wanted to set the expectation really high.”

There are 20 regular-season games left for Inter Miami, and they’ve played two more games at DRV PNK Stadium than on the road thus far. Those qualifiers aside, Neville sees a team that’s hanging with some of MLS’s best.

“The teams that we’ve played over the last three, four, five weeks have been some of the top teams,” Neville said. “I’d say that there’s no team I’ve thought they’re miles better than us, they’re better than us. We can compete with every team. We’ve got players that I see can compete with the best in the league, and that’s what I’ve told them today.”

After recovering and getting healthy over the international window, Inter Miami return to action June 19 at Atlanta United (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). Come then, Neville expects their “momentum, culture, an identity” to keep showing.

“I wanted us to go into the break exactly in this position where we could feel good about ourselves, we could feel good about our work and where we can get rewards for the work that we’ve put in and the consistency that we’ve put in,” Neville said. “At this football club, I don’t think we should be shy in saying the expectations that are required, the expectations that we demand and that is winning and that is entertaining, that is winning football games at home.”