Miami were really, really ambitious. As it turns out, maybe a little bit too ambitious.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
There is simply nowhere to start a recap of Miami’s 2021 season except with the unprecedented sanctions levied against the team for circumventing the salary budget and roster guidelines in 2020. That cost them young DP winger Matias Pellegrini as well as a boatload of future allocation cash, and it seemed to take the wind out of their sails after a fairly promising start to the year.
It looked like they never quite emotionally recovered and thus were never quite on the same page.
Formation and tactics
New head coach Phil Neville tried a few different looks over the course of the year but for most of the back half of 2021 it’s been a low block 3-4-2-1 that sometimes played as a 3-4-1-2, designed with the aim of getting the wingbacks upfield and involved in order to pull the defense away from center forward Gonzalo Higuain.
It’s been… not great. Miami are in the bottom third of virtually every statistic that has anything to do with moving the ball around the field quickly and into good spots, and are thus dead last in chances created overall and big chances created, and second to last in chances created from open play.
On the flip side they didn’t precisely make up for their attacking shortcomings defensively, and frequently were exposed by opposing wingers who’d feast with Miami’s wingbacks pushed so high up.
Unquestionably, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best part of the season for Inter Miami was the late summer stretch during which they went 7-1-3 and pulled themselves into legitimate playoff contention until the bottom dropped out in mid-September. That stretch came after Neville ditched the captain-by-committee strategy he’d used since training camp and went with Brazilian d-mid Gregore as the sole wearer of the armband, which seemed to have a galvanizing effect.
Of course, the underlying numbers said they were getting lucky during the entirety of that 11-game run and the underlying numbers, it turned out, were right.
We’ll get to that in a minute, though, because I want to focus on what I’ll remember as the highlight of this season for Inter: The Higuain Bros. show in Philly way back in Week 2, when Pipa and Pipita authored a come-from-behind 2-1 win with a pair of late goals at the home of the team that had given Gonzalo such a rude welcome to MLS in 2020.
This had real “revenge game” vibes; this kind of passion and these kinds of goals seemed to speak well of what was to come:
Lots to choose from here, though I suppose when a team has two separate six-game losing streaks, you’ll probably hone in on one of those.
And for me, the second of the two – the one that came directly on the heels of that great 11-game run – was the absolute worst, as Miami started finding themselves on the wrong end of those aforementioned underlying numbers. Here’s what my colleague Tom Bogert wrote on September 16:
Since the blowout loss to New England, only the Revs have earned more points in MLS than Miami, though the soft schedule and underlying numbers show warning signs.
Miami have still been below average in expected goals against (14.12) though have conceded just nine goals, the fifth-fewest over the span. Their xGA minus goals conceded is -5.12. Only Sporting Kansas City (-9.89!) have outperformed their xGA to a greater effect. It’s a similar story in attack. Even buoyed by some penalties, they are outperforming their xG by 2.17, the third-most in the league over that span.
Twenty-four hours later Miami lost 4-0 to the Red Bulls. They then lost five more, and by the time this particular losing streak was over they’d been outscored 16-1 and were sporting a trio of one-goal losses and a trio of four-goal losses.
Regression to the mean hits different.
Not only were there no revelations for a team that really did hand out a good number of minutes to young or youngish players, but last year’s revelation – Scottish winger/wingback Lewis Morgan – kind of disappeared, producing just 2g/3a in about 2700 minutes in 2021 after putting together a very solid 5g/8a in 2000ish 2020 minutes.
None of the young players on the roster, be they imports, Homegrowns or SuperDraft picks, have looked the part of long-term solutions for this team. And that FC Cincy-esque lack of year-to-year improvement from a cohort of players that absolutely have to improve in order for Miami to compete on a budget is worrying, to put it mildly.
That lack of improvement, probably? I guess I should’ve saved that for this section but I can come up with another.
How about the failure of any of the old European imports to even function as band-aids, let alone cures for what ailed Miami? Ryan Shawcross was poor and then subsequently got hurt and missed the rest of the season; Kieran Gibbs has played just 700 minutes; Nick Marsman has not been an upgrade in goal.
These signings not only didn’t make things better, but they also came with substantial opportunity cost measured in international roster slots and a salary that totals up to just about a max cap hit.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Gregore (DM): I think he’s probably been Miami’s best player this season. Not a super high bar, obviously, but they got this signing right.
- Gonzalo Higuain (FW): Pipita hasn’t been great, but 12g/9a despite the dysfunction of the attack around him isn’t a bad ROI, and he really has tried.
- Indiana Vassilev (W/AM): I almost put Vassilev in the “Revelations” section as he’s added a dose of directness and aggression to the attack, but he’s still got just 2g/0a in 600 minutes so… no. But he’s looked like a promising young player. Worth noting, though, that he’s in MLS on loan from the Premier League's Aston Villa.
- Morgan (W/WB): His second season may have been disappointing but he’s still one of the most reliable two-way players on the roster, is in his prime and is on a reasonable deal.
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (CB): He’s certainly overpaid relative to his performance this season, but LGP is a former Best XI CB in his prime. You’re supposed to keep guys like that.
Rodolfo Pizarro can be sold – he has been linked with a move back to Chivas – or, at worst, bought out. That’s one DP slot open. Perhaps Blaise Matuidi departs as well? But he's under contract through 2022.
The penalty imposed on Miami means they don’t have much wiggle room with the rest of the roster, but if you get three elite DPs on the field those guys have a way of making bad players decent and decent players good. Pizarro and Matuidi uniformly have not done that, while Higuain has only been moderately successful.
But if they get themselves an MVP-caliber DP No. 10 and an elite, goalscoring DP winger to help Higuain with the lift? If that happens then at least Miami have a clear path forward and, perhaps, upwards.
They have to get these moves right, though – there is zero room for error. If they don’t manage that, it’s hard to see how they’d field a competitive club before 2025 at the earliest.