National Writer: Charles Boehm

“It's his time”: As Leo Campana rises for Inter Miami, Gonzalo Higuain left in shade

Just as some of the most important movements in a match happen away from the ball, sometimes key moments in a game – or a season – unfold just out of our collective gaze, escaping the degree of attention they deserve.

While ESPN’s broadcast audience was poring over the footage of a very tight Video Review decision that could have given the visitors a chance to equalize from the penalty spot, those present at DRV PNK Stadium for Inter Miami CF’s 2-1 comeback win over Atlanta United on Sunday afternoon witnessed a sort of changing of the guard in the 82nd minute.

Leo Campana was finishing out another man-of-the-match outing for Miami, having scored his fifth goal in the Herons’ last four games before serving up the assist on Bryce Duke’s game-winner, making way for Gonzalo Higuain, whose preferred No. 9 spot he has commandeered with his scorching run of form while the veteran superstar was out injured:

What may turn out to be a fundamental inflection point in IMCF’s season, even their entire brief existence as a club, flashed before the eyes of their home faithful while the cameras were focused elsewhere: A 21-year-old striker taking the mantle from – and paying tribute to – the 34-year-old legend whose level he has eclipsed in recent weeks, sparking new life into their team’s previously moribund campaign with a series of complete performances.

“I think he knows he's undroppable, I think he knows he's in a rich vein of form and I keep telling him every single day, it's his time. It's his time,” said Herons head coach Phil Neville postgame of Campana, who with five goals now sits in a six-way tie for second place in the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race, one behind new leaders Sebastian Driussi of Austin FC and Jesus Jimenez of Toronto FC.

“When he walked off the field, I thought that was class. I thought that was real class – that's a boy that respects people that have been there and done it in the game,” added Neville of Campana’s defense of Higuain, “and I thought that was everything that we want in the squad. He's doing well, and I'm pleased with that.”

Adrift at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings just a few weeks ago via a 0W-4L-1D start, Miami are suddenly a side to be reckoned with, or at the very least respected, several notches above what they’ve been basically since their debut in 2020.

Campana’s arrival in the starting XI, initially due to a Higuain knee injury, has powered a four-game winning streak across league and US Open Cup action. And while asterisks can be attached to all of those results – Neville, notably, called such soft-pedaling of Miami’s previous wins over New England and Seattle “a little bit disrespectful” – defying skillful Atlanta’s superior overall display to snatch three points on national television is their biggest marker yet.

“Totally, totally,” Campana said postgame when asked by ESPN’s Jillian Sakovits whether this was a statement game for the Herons. “We have character, we have personality, we have courage to play. And I think this sport is about that. Maybe you can play good, you can play bad, but when you have that, you win these games.”

While Higuain is in the final guaranteed season of one of the largest contracts in MLS, Campana is on loan from the Premier League's Wolverhampton Wanderers. It’s the third such stint of his young career, still pursuing his true breakout on a wider stage after his teenage exploits for Barcelona SC in his native Ecuador.

Neville, who did his part too, adjusting his side’s formation in-game to a 3-5-2 to press Santiago Sosa and blunt ATLUTD’s midfield buildup, noted to Sakovits that both Campana and IMCF as a whole have made it a collective mission to earn him a spot on La Tri’s World Cup roster in Qatar later this year.

“He is going to be a top player. We want him to go to the World Cup. That's his goal, and he’s just got to keep scoring and scoring,” said Neville, who never made it to that tournament as a player despite his distinguished international career with England. “You see the reaction of the supporters when he was coming out: He's becoming a hero here.”

The Englishman later compared Campana to other talisman No. 9s around the league.

“Last season when I was looking at all the other MLS teams, you look at \[Taty\] Castellanos at NYC, \[Adam\] Buksa in New England, Josef Martinez – every team seems to have a striker that scores goals. Every team seems to have a striker that is their figurehead, that is the anchor that you can always rely on through good and bad, whether you're playing good or whether you’re playing bad, to create and score something,” said Neville, “and he is becoming that.”

Leo Campana goal ATL MIA
Leo Campana scores for Inter Miami vs. Atlanta United.

Campana himself spoke like a player hungry to write himself into the Herons’ history.

“First of all, I would like to thank my teammates. Without them I couldn't achieve anything – I haven't achieved anything,” he said. “I have to keep working, keep proving myself. I have a lot to prove. But things are doing well for us. For me, I think that's important. We have to be working on putting Miami where it belongs.”

For Higuain, it’s a painful and not entirely just development at the twilight of an illustrious career.

Though he was IMCF’s leading scorer last season, the Argentine has become for many an emblem of the club’s early missteps and underachievement. He now must adapt to a rapidly-shifting role as a youth movement sweeps across a team still working through the fallout from roster sanctions imposed after improprieties around another star-crossed Designated Player, Blaise Matuidi.

Campana’s unselfish, game-winning squared pass to Duke, a 21-year-old product of the Real Salt Lake academy whose January acquisition from LAFC epitomizes the value shopping of Miami’s chief soccer officer and sporting director Chris Henderson, encapsulates that evolution, too.

“We have a young squad. That's a strength, and it could be considered a weakness, but something that we have to get over or overcome, because we're a new team, first season together, building that chemistry,” said Duke, a second-half substitute for Mo Adams, another low-key pickup who did yeoman’s work in the engine room against his former team.

“But on the positive side [as a] young team, we're always hungry, going into tackles, everyone wants to have that starting spot and get the best results for the team.”

Higuain may still have a part to play, though perhaps not quite the sort that many of us expected.

“He will be hurting. But he wants to win at this football club. We will need Gonzalo Higuain, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Neville. “But I think what's happening is that football is really brutal. You either jump on the train with the rest of the boys that are going at 90 miles an hour, or you get left at the station.

“For everybody at this football club now, we've got to jump on the train. And Gonzalo is one of those that has to jump on the train. Because it's growing and it's growing fast, and they’re getting more confidence, they’re getting more belief. And everybody's just got to jump on it with them.”