National Writer: Charles Boehm

Inter Miami pull off another shorthanded win: "The young ones are showing up"


It’s not all too often this season that Inter Miami have played an opponent against whom they were considered clear underdogs by anyone, let alone by the Herons themselves – and even less so at their Chase Stadium home.

Yet that’s exactly how Tata Martino and his side approached Wednesday’s visit from the Columbus Crew.

“I told the players,” Martino later said, “we're going to play a team that is better than us.”

Or in the words of Sergio Busquets: “We were playing against what, for me, is the best team in MLS.”

Supporting cast steps up

With Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Matías Rojas away on international duty and a long list of others sidelined by injury, the Argentine manager changed his team’s tactics and shape significantly as they welcomed the defending MLS Cup champions. Miami shifted into a 5-2-3 formation for long stretches, alternating between direct pressing and a deep-lying defensive bunker in an effort to stymie the Crew’s expansive passing game.

By the final whistle, IMCF had owned a mere 35% of ball possession, by far their lowest such level of the season.

But it mattered none to the Herons. Because homegrown Ian Fray nodded home a corner-kick header on his first MLS appearance in 11 months and Leo Campana took advantage of a poorly-timed Steven Moreira turnover deep in the Crew’s own end to take a two-goal lead after just 21 minutes, laying the groundwork for a 2-1 victory that keeps Miami atop the overall MLS standings despite so many missing protagonists.

“We knew that we had to play this kind of match,” said Martino. “With all the work they’ve done, all the confidence that they have in their players and the confidence that they have in their system, Columbus is not an opponent against whom it’s easy to come and dispute possession of the ball against them.

“We did very well during the first half, and we used the transitions. The idea is that the three forwards were playing against the three center backs and pressuring, and playing three against three when they attack, and that's what they did very well. We knew that we would have a match where we're going to suffer. But we also knew that if we were orderly and applied ourselves, the match would give us some positive results.”

Much like their miraculous 2-1 win at Philadelphia with nine men over the weekend, it’s just the kind of outcome Miami need to stay on course with key superstars at the 2024 Copa América. It should fuel confidence and belief among youngsters and reserves whose contributions are for now essential, an example of the technical staff’s big-picture plans working out just as desired.

“They became good names in a difficult time for the team last year. So they are perfectly used to continue with their situation and we're very happy with how they play,” said Tata of his kids, hailing the likes of Noah Allen, Benja Cremaschi, Yannick Bright, Leo Afonso and Shanyder Borgelin. “All the young ones are showing up when we need them. They know what happens when we have all of our roster complete. But right now it's their turn and they have to face it.”

Columbus come out flat

Fray’s triumphant return from the latest in his brutally unlucky string of three ACL injuries adds to the feel-good factor – “that goal is something that we value and we enjoy,” said Martino – and the 21-year-old defender also pressured Moreira into the giveaway that led to Campana’s winner. It’s the Ecuadorian striker’s fifth goal contribution against Columbus since last April, and it will be particularly galling viewing for the Crew given its self-inflicted nature.

“We just needed to be sharper. I thought they did a good job defensively of being tight and compact, and they were dangerous on the counter,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe. “We can play out of the back if we make better decisions, better choices. So I wouldn't put that one on the way we play.

“They did a good job trying to stop us from playing up the middle. We still created some chances but we couldn’t finish.”

The result snaps the Crew’s four-game road winning streak in league play and represents a missed opportunity to snatch points off a severely depleted IMCF group. Head coach Wilfried Nancy said that part wasn’t as frustrating as the generous nature of the goals they allowed, digging them a hole that even a ferocious second-half rally couldn’t erase.

“Today I would have preferred to concede in another way,” noted the Frenchman. “It could have been better.

“The frustration is about the way we conceded the goals,” he added. “We tried to attack, we tried to unbalance them, we were in their half in the second half. We had a moment in the first half where it was difficult, it’s normal, because also this is a good team. … We had opportunities. with a bit of a better decision, we could have scored the second goal.”