As a key architect of three of the most ambitious expansion clubs in MLS history, Paul McDonough’s reputation precedes him at this point.
There was Orlando City’s Kaká-centered arrival in 2015, then the splashy entry and immediate success of Atlanta United. And now the locale, visibility and wealth of his latest project, Inter Miami CF, has pushed expectations even higher.
But McDonough’s neither the type to hog the spotlight nor rush the process.
“Look, I mean, Atlanta was a perfect storm,” he told MLSsoccer.com with a chuckle in the leadup to Inter’s MLS is Back curtain-raiser vs. Orlando on Wednesday night (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada). “With Miguel [Almiron] and Josef [Martinez], that made everybody look really, really good.”
It says much about McDonough that here he quickly transitions into an explanation of how a groundbreaking competitor has influenced his approach to a job he’s already quite skilled at.
“We haven’t finished the roster yet,” he said of Miami’s inaugural season. “In Atlanta we were a lot further along in finishing the roster for the first game. I want to be a little more patient, because I watched what the LAFC guys did, and they were a little more patient in their build. So I wanted to wait and add pieces once we started playing and take advantage of the European season winding down.
“The pandemic hit and that's kind of put a pause, because now it's actually extended some of the European seasons. So every every build is completely different. We're happy with where we are. We have a lot of [salary] cap flexibility to continue to build and strengthen the squad in the years to come.”
He and his staff have already added to the squad this month by signing former Atlanta United center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, though he won't be able to compete in the MLS is Back Tournament. And McDonough suggests Inter could reel in two impact attacking reinforcements in this COVID-19-disrupted summer window – “a winger or a striker and a No. 8 would probably be our most pressing needs right now.”
The rumor mill regularly churns out reports that one of them might be a truly big name along the lines of James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez or Edinson Cavani, which hints at Miami’s resources and appeal, and the rarified air that co-owner David Beckham’s involvement elevates them into.
But like the song says, more money, more problems.
“With the club and with David, we get a lot of calls,” said McDonough. “The hard part is right now is the players that we're speaking to, we’re competing with the likes of Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, PSG, and that's just a different price structure compared to what other teams in the league are dealing with. So I'd like it to be a little bit more in par with what the rest of the league is spending. But to compete with the top clubs in Europe for money, you have to really spend big.”
Miami dropped significant cash to pry Mexican star Rodolfo Pizarro away from Monterrey and may eventually want another superstar or two to help fill their stadium, be it their temporary home in Fort Lauderdale or the glitzy venue they aim to build in the Miami Freedom Park project. Yet McDonough has a long-range plan, and sounds determined not to be knocked off course or held to ransom for a marquee headliner.
“I understand the ambitions about signing a big player like that. But I’ve always said that it has to make sense,” he said. “I'm not going to go sign a big, cachet player and pay him twice as much as any player in the history of the league. And those are some of the conversations we've had, and I just don't think that that's realistic.”
The Gonzalez Pirez acquisition looks like an example of his deal-making prowess: a leader, proven MLS performer and US green-card holder nabbed at a below-market price thanks to a combination of the coronavirus’ depression of the international transfer market and new limitations on foreign players looming in Liga MX. Miami have already invested in a batch of young South American talent with high sell-on potential and McDonough says he’d be happy to continue in that vein.
“If we can't find the right big-name player who’ll want to come here for the right reasons and in the salary structure of the league, then we'll go sign someone that is younger and we can develop and he'll help us win games and have a resale process to him,” he explained.
“You're always running two parallel lines here in Miami: You look for the big cachet, but it's got to make sense. And if not, then you look for a player that you can sign to help you win games, develop and then sell.”
As suddenly and severely as the COVID cash crunch has hit all but the world’s biggest and richest clubs, McDonough describes the factors that make bargain-hunting trickier than it might seem.
“We’ve talked to a lot of players that are out of contract where I think normally it would’ve been a little more advantageous to get them, but now free agents are such a premium,” he said. “Instead of a club going out and spending a big transfer fee to get another player, they can give a little bit more salary to a free agent. So I think the free agents are really, really difficult to get. And then dealing with clubs, some clubs are still trying to hold on to the pre-COVID pricing.”
As with Tata Martino in Atlanta, he’s working with a charismatic and respected coach in Diego Alonso, whose reputation has raised Inter’s profile further and quickly laid down the foundations of a stylistic identity.
“Diego's got a really high-energy group. They're bought into working and playing attractive,” said McDonough. “Diego has to find the balance between throwing caution to the wind in the attack and being really disciplined in the defense. But I think the attitude and personality of the group really fits Diego. There’s good passion and we have good, technical players to fulfill his game plan.”
They’re still seeking their first win, though the plan is to mark far bigger milestones later in this strange debut season. That’s the bigger picture on McDonough’s mind even as the cross-state faceoff with Orlando dominates the discussion this week.
“I don’t know if I would call it a rivalry match, because we haven’t played yet,” he said of the meeting with his former club. “We have to focus on everyone in the East, not just one team. Because for us to make the playoffs, there’s a lot of teams in the East that we have to beat.”