Inter Miami set for defensive makeover in 2022 MLS season

It's been a transformative offseason for Inter Miami CF, with the South Florida side retooling in hopes of becoming an Eastern Conference contender in 2022 after last year's Audi MLS Cup Playoffs miss.

That's been perhaps most evident on the defensive side, where there's an influx of new personnel in the buildup to their season-opener against Chicago Fire FC on Feb. 26. In their penultimate game of 2021 against eventual MLS Cup winners New York City FC, Miami started a back four of Nicolas Figal, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Christian Makoun and Brek Shea. Figal is expected to depart, Pirez is on loan at River Plate, Makoun was traded to Charlotte FC and Shea is a free agent though trained Monday. Ryan Shawcross has also retired and right back Kelvin Leerdam joined the LA Galaxy in free agency.

Head coach Phil Neville told reporters on Monday he believes the new-look group possesses the upside to improve markedly on last season's performance, even if it's a youthful bunch. Among them is center back Jairo Quinteros, with the 20-year-old returning after spending last season on loan in his native Bolivia with Club Bolivar. Neville expects Quinteros to compete for a prominent role during preseason, along with 19-year old homegrown Ian Fray, 2021 SuperDraft pick Aime Mabika and new signing Christopher McVey.

"The thing I kept thinking about over the summer when we were looking at the center back situation, we want center backs that can defend, we want center backs that can do the job," Neville said. "And I looked at Jairo Quinteros, and you look at scouting all over the world, you look at bringing in certain defenders, and I kept seeing Quinteros playing against the best strikers in the world, as far as the Argentinian strikers, the Costa Rican strikers. And this boy was playing every week in the center back for Bolivia against the best strikers in this part of the world.

"So we had someone right under our noses that was in our football club that was wanted to play for Inter Miami," he continued. "So we spoke long and hard about the center back situation and with McVey, with Quinteros, with Fray, with Mabika, we've got four outstanding young defenders. Ian Fray last year would have played in MLS if it wasn't for an ACL injury. Mabika played two games in MLS and was outstanding in both games. So the minute that we saw Mabika play last year in two games, we knew he was going to be an MLS defender this year and an MLS defender in the shape that we want it to be. And Quinteros will fit into that back three or four that we're going to play."

Along with those young faces, Inter Miami have brought in a veteran reinforcement in Jamaica international center back Damion Lowe, whose signing was announced Sunday. The 28-year-old has captained Jamaica in Concacaf, an experience that Neville said should provide a steadying presence.

"Add into that Damion Lowe, who probably is the elder statesman of the group, the leader, the experienced head at the back, who we've watched for the last 12 to 18 months – we've watched more of Damion Lowe than anyone in World Cup Qualifying, the Gold Cup game, so we know what we're getting there," Neville said. "So it's quite exciting to see those young players at the back develop. Quinteros is one of them. They will make mistakes like all defenders do, like all young defenders do, but they'll do it from the basis of wanting to learn and wanting to get better. They're all quick, they're all strong and they're all determined to fight for a place in the back four."

The backline isn't the only area where the club has experienced turnover.

Notably, Inter Miami also signed Brazilian midfielder Jean Mota to solidify their central group alongside Gregore, who was among their top players last season. Mota could help fill the void left by Blaise Matuidi, who is reportedly departing the club. The 28-year-old played with Gregore at Santos, notching 164 appearances in the Brazilian Série A himself.

"It's an opportunity for us to bring in a player who could be a DP but not on a DP tag on your roster," Henderson said of Mota. "And he's very smart, he likes to ball under pressure, he's like a playmaker from a line back, so we're really happy to add him. Gregore knew him so they have a history together. It's really important throughout the field to have players who can complement each other in different parts of the field.

"That is what we want to do, is bring these young players through and give them an opportunity to develop and become stars on our team."

Miami's defensive holdovers include Dutch goalkeeper Nick Marsman and ex-Arsenal left back Kieran Gibbs. Lewis Morgan, who often featured at wingback in 2021, has since been traded to the New York Red Bulls for $1.2 million in General Allocation Money.