Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Inter Miami after Phil Neville dismissal: "We have a team that's good enough"

Phil Neville MIA

When glancing at the MLS standings, Thursday evening’s news that Inter Miami CF had parted ways with head coach Phil Neville wasn’t a huge surprise.

The club sits last (15th place) in the Eastern Conference table and third-from-bottom in the overall league (27 of 29 teams) with a 5W-10L-0D record (15 points; 1 ppg). They’ve also experienced two lengthy losing streaks this year, and hope their current four-game skid ends Saturday night when hosting D.C. United (7:30 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).

Chris Henderson, Miami’s chief soccer officer and sporting director, was explicit Friday when discussing the rationale behind why they went in a different direction as the 2023 campaign’s halfway point comes into view.

“We've had some injuries that have affected results, but we have a competitive team, we have a team good enough to be winning these games. There's top players up top that need to be finishing goals,” said Henderson.

“ … The staff, the front office, the players, the coaches and players have to give a little bit more and be a little more clinical. If you look at our results, many 1-0 losses. I would say all but two, so we're in these games. But when we get chances we have to finish.”

Key injuries, underperforming stars

The injuries mentioned mainly surround Brazilian midfielders Gregore (foot) and Jean Mota (knee), their engine-room drivers. Gregore, their captain, went down in mid-March and the club took six straight losses before a 2-1 win at the Columbus Crew in late April stopped the bleeding.

On the scoring front, marquee strikers Josef Martínez and Leonardo Campana have combined to score six goals (three apiece) of their 14 total. Midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, one of their Designated Players, has zero goals and one assist thus far. Especially in the final third, the clinical touch has proven evasive.

It all creates an area of focus for interim head coach Javier Morales, who was an assistant on Neville’s staff and initially joined the club in early 2019 as an academy coach, before their 2020 expansion season.

“They are two talented players and for me, it's not like if we can play with one or two forwards,” said Morales, addressing how to get more out of Martínez and Campana. “I want them in their best performances to give problems to me if we have with two, with three, if we have another forward ready. But what I'm looking for is to have everyone at his top level to try to contribute to the team and try to help us to win games.”

Morales, among MLS’s best-ever playmakers, is a Real Salt Lake legend from his playing days. He described Neville’s departure, combined with assistant coach Jason Kreis leaving, as a tough moment considering the opportunities they both afforded him. But he’s also eager to be more than a caretaker interim with a short-term purview.

“This is the opportunity of my life, I've been waiting for this,” said Morales. “Probably it's not in the way I expected, but this is life, it is what it is and it's coming this time. I'm happy for the opportunity and I will do my best.

“I'm with this club since day one. I saw this club from the last three and a half years growing so much. But I feel part of that process, I love this club and I will do my best to try and help to improve and get better as soon as possible."

Tata, Messi on the way?

Asked about what comes next, whether it’s Morales getting the permanent role or a new hire coming in, Henderson was light on details. There’s been some speculation externally about Tata Martino being a candidate, with the ex-Atlanta United coach voicing an openness to rejoin MLS after leading Mexico at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. While in Atlanta, Martínez thrived under Martino.

“There will be an interview process, but I'm not going to get into specifics,” said Henderson, who joined Miami ahead of 2021 alongside Neville. “That's internal within our club, between myself and our ownership group. We will continue that process together.”

Henderson similarly didn’t directly comment on the global transfer rumors that Argentine legend Lionel Messi may come to Inter Miami this summer. The 35-year-old forward, arguably the game’s best-ever player, is set to leave Paris Saint-Germain and has been linked with an FC Barcelona return, heading to Saudi Arabia’s cash-rich league or coming to South Beach.

“I'm not going to get into specifics about players that are not on our roster. I'm here today to talk about Javi Morales, to talk about our team,” said Henderson.

“There is a transfer window opening, but we want to focus on tomorrow night, Open Cup quarterfinals and the next game on the next weekend. It's a busy period for us and that's our focus at the moment.”

Ultimately, Neville went 36W-43L-11D across all competitions with the Herons. The Miami managerial spot was Neville’s first lead role in men’s club soccer, having previously steered the England women’s national team and taking assistant roles with Valencia CF, Manchester United and the England men's Under-21s. Neville, a close friend and former teammate of co-owner David Beckham, had signed a contract extension last November.

Now, Miami hope a change on the sidelines can spark a turnaround and lead towards back-to-back Audi MLS Cup Playoff appearances. The fourth-year club has big potential, in Henderson’s eyes, even when taking into account the injuries and tail-end of some roster-building limitations.

“You never feel like it's the right time to make the move and you have to make difficult decisions sometimes to grow and move forward,” said Henderson. “Collectively we felt this was that moment and Javi has had this opportunity. We do have a transfer window coming up. We do have some players coming back from injury that will be close in the next few games that will help improve the team. Having those players come back gives us more competition for spots. You need that competition every single day.

“Then it's a mentality. When we play at home, we need to get results and we need to have everyone give a little extra 10% to make sure we get the result. I know in sports things can go anyway on any given day, but we have a team that's good enough to be performing better than we are at the moment.”