Inter Miami are right where any expansion team would want to be with six matches left in the season: right in the playoff mix. After winning back-to-back games for the first time in their inaugural season, they find themselves just one point out of a playoff spot heading into Sunday's Week 17 action.
Just when you thought the postseason was about to slip away after new goal scorer Gonzalo Higuain missed a big penalty, star playmaker Rodolfo Pizarro was forced to join the Mexican national team and starting goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles suffered a fracture, Inter Miami found a way to win two in a row. If they find a way to beat Atlanta United at home in Week 18 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN+), they will bypass them in the standings and into the playoff zone.
"It's the first time we win consecutive matches and I think that emotionally it makes us stronger," said head coach Diego Alonso after their 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in Week 17. "The two games we won [vs. RBNY and vs. Houston] were deserved. And that makes you stronger. Winning and playing well doing it, strengthens your conviction. We move forward and tomorrow we begin to work on Atlanta."
Alonso also wanted everyone to know that this is a new Inter Miami team. The story of the club's season has taken a real twist, according to the Uruguayan manager: After their three-and-out showing at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando and the arrival of reinforcements, there's a different vibe about his club.
"I think the team has improved and it's noticeable that since we returned from Orlando this is another team," Alonso said. "And since Blaise Matuidi arrived, [Leandro] Gonzalez Pirez arrived and Higuain arrived, it's another team. We have more options, more quality and the players notice it and it's contagious so everyone tries to play at this level."
Highlights: Inter Miami 1, Houston Dynamo 0
And it hasn't been a shabby start for new starting goalkeeper John McCarthy, who's stepped in to take over for Robles and notched two wins in his first MLS action since September 2018, including a shutout.
McCarthy made the tough decision to leave MLS in 2019 to play with Tampa Bay in the USL Championship given playing time with his former club, his hometown Philadelphia Union, was sparse behind immovable starter Andre Blake. Although he made it clear he "feels terrible for what happened to Luis," he's eager to take advantage of this new opportunity in MLS.
Alonso highlighted of the main quality he appreciates in his new starting 'keeper:
"John is showing what he is: a player with great temperament and a lot of personality," Alonso said. "In his position you don't need to have a lot of quality although he has it. It's about having the confidence and transmitting it [to his teammates] ... this confidence, this bravery, this capacity to make himself noticed when he's on the field."
McCarthy summed up Alonso's point more succinctly: "I try to hold myself to control the box. It's the goalkeeper domain in my mind."
Toss in Higuain's unselfish play and his team-first attitude, as noted by MLSsoccer.com columnist Steve Zakuani, a five-back set-up that seems to be a good fit, and the fact that they've been in all but one of their first 17 matches in official competition and it's a Miami team that not only believes they can make the postseason, but that they can make some noise when they get there.
"The team is growing and I repeat, from Orlando it's clearly changed and it has improved. Since players like Gonzalez Pirez, Matuidi and Higuain have arrived the team has had a big jump in quality and today we're a team that competes really well," Alonso said. "I would've loved to have all of them from the start and I think the story would've been different, but it's what it is and I'm happy. The team is moving forward and in what is perhaps the most important part of the season, the team is at its best, which is good. If we can get into the playoffs, we'll definitely be tough for any team. And we'll try to be there in our first year."