National Writer: Charles Boehm

Miami Miracle: Leo Afonso plays the hero with Messi, Suárez at Copa América


Inter Miami CF made the trip via a jet plane. But what they inflicted on the Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park on Saturday night was highway robbery.

Despite the absence of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Matías Rojas on Copa América duty, despite conceding the game’s opening goal for an incredible 13th – yes, 13th – time this season and despite suffering second-half red cards to both David Ruiz and Tomás Avilés, the Herons incredibly, tenaciously conjured up an injury-time winner with just nine men on the pitch to stun Philly and their lively home crowd with a 2-1 victory for the Supporters’ Shield leaders.

“It is clear that in 10 times, nine of these games we would end up losing,” IMCF head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino said postgame. “And we not only had the possibility of holding on to the 1-1 scoreline, but we were also able to score the second goal with nine players. Absolutely all the credit belongs to them.

“That has to do with the effort, with the character, with the guts that the boys had.”

Afonso's shining moment

With their brightest stars unavailable, it was two rookie SuperDraft picks who came up clutch for Miami.

With masses of navy blue shirts clustered in the attacking third in injury time as the Union searched desperately to convert their numerical advantage into a late winner, Yannick Bright intercepted a Jack McGlynn pass, then slalomed towards the touchline under pressure and played fellow substitute Leo Afonso forward into acres of space.

The Brazilian-American attacker had ample time to cut past isolated Philly center back Jakob Glesnes and beat Oliver Semmle with a near-post finish for the second MLS goal of his fledgling professional career, sparking euphoric celebrations among those clad in pink.

“It's an amazing feeling,” Afonso, who’s been battling through a troublesome groin injury, said afterward. “I mean, I can't, it's hard to put words to it, but it's amazing. So just being here, I feel so blessed and thankful, so excited to get a goal in an important game, with two men down, on the road.

“It's difficult when you're missing the best players in history in their positions. But we got to keep working, and we got to try our best, and that's what we did tonight.”

If IMCF ultimately outpace FC Cincinnati and the rest of the trailing pack to the Supporters’ Shield, they’ll look back on this result as three outsized points: an occasion on which two of their young contributors showed poor judgment in collecting two yellow cards apiece, but two others stepped up to save the day, something the Herons have often had to rely on Messi and Suárez for.

“I believe that the good of these results for the group is that, to win a game with a match with two fewer players, their learning comes with a win, which they can overcome in a better way,” said Martino of his youngsters.

“Had it been a defeat, they would be more criticized, their self-criticism would have been much greater. In this case, since there was a win, we can be a little bit more calm, in that there are lessons learned from the kind of mistakes that generally make you lose the game.”

Philly heartbreak

For all of Miami’s elation, the devastation was just as extreme for the hosts. This was the fifth home loss of the season for a proud perennial contender which not so long ago went 24 matches without tasting defeat at that venue. The Union faithful greeted the final whistle with cascades of boos, driven to distraction by their team’s lack of cutting edge after Mikael Uhre slotted home the game’s first goal mere moments past the opening kickoff.

“First and foremost, I apologize to the fans,” said Philly coach Jim Curtin, who readily acknowledged the anger expressed by supporters. “Another great crowd that came out, and we let ourselves down. The group, not for lack of effort, works tirelessly, executes things in the game plan. But in the key moments now, we've been getting punished, and punished at home, which really hurts.”

To deepen the gloom, the Union had to face the league leaders without talismanic striker Julián Carranza, and the Argentine’s absence was apparent in Philly’s lack of cutting edge in front of goal. According to multiple reports, Carranza is close to completing a transfer to Dutch power Feyenoord and appears to have played his last game in a Union kit.

“I don't know what's official or not, but he's not playing,” said Curtin. “He won't be playing for us, unfortunately.

“When you lose your best striker, you're going to be hurt a little bit, like any team would be. So yeah, obviously we miss Julián, have in the last three games. But still, again up two men, regardless of what strikers are on the field, we should be able to create chances for them and get opportunities, and we didn't get enough of those tonight.”

The Union now sit eighth in the Eastern Conference standings with a 4W-5L-8D record, with just one league win at Subaru Park. After the match, left back Kai Wagner added his voice to the increasingly vocal cries among fans and pundits for the historically frugal club to seek significant reinforcements in the summer transfer window.

“We don't have a guy with pace on the whole pitch and now [that] Julian's gone, we need a real finisher in front of the goal,” the German told journalist José Roberto Nuñez. “Our front office has to see now that we need to invest in the team.”