By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 20, 2022) US Soccer Players – It was easy to set expectations for Major League Soccer’s long-awaited return to South Florida. Bold and splashy, according to the conventional wisdom, with no room for the missteps that ultimately doomed the Miami Fusion back in the early 2000s. Glitz, glamour, and a centrally-located, suitable stadium almost became prerequisites.
David Beckham’s involvement brought star power. His alliance of millionaire and billionaire co-owners added the financial muscle considered necessary when he officially exercised his ownership option in February 2014. At that point, the project was already becoming a darling of the transfer tabloids, a reputed future landing spot for seemingly every superstar in world soccer. Things look a lot different as Inter gets its third season underway this week.
The downtown stadium project is still working its way through planning and local politics. In its absence, the club is based up in Fort Lauderdale, on the exact same site that was a problem when the Miami Fusion called it home. There’s already been significant turnover in the ownership group. Then there are the unprecedentedly large penalties levied on Miami for violating MLS roster and salary rules.
After a disappointing, at times even depressing 12-17-5 campaign in 2021, the roster has effectively been demolished by MLS standards, less than half of it kept around for this season. Only one truly big-name signing, Designated Player Gonzalo Higuain, has made it to year three.
“We needed to have a fresh new team. This is a reset button for the organization,” said head coach Phil Neville as Miami’s preseason got underway on Monday. “I always felt we were never a team [last year]. We were always a team where individuals felt they were more important than the team, and I felt that early on in terms of the roster. The best players don’t always make the best team.”
Higuain, who turned 34 last month, acknowledged the hard lessons. He admitted that he wasn’t at full speed last season, and labored with the physical burdens of a #9 on a struggling team. He’s now likely to serve as more of a playmaker, relying on his experience and younger teammates.
“In this league you must have a plan B; you don’t have to be ashamed to play long ball,” Higuain said in Spanish. “There are many teams that don’t play what you would call good soccer, and they qualify for the playoffs every year. There has to be a plan B, it doesn’t have to be yes or yes to charm people.”
Lured away from the Seattle Sounders a year ago, chief soccer officer Chris Henderson is now leading a dramatic housecleaning. The former USMNTer is pulling out all the stops to make Inter Miami younger, leaner, and meaner in the face of the painful sanctions, shipping out a long list of older and underperforming figures and working the phones to swing intra-league deals.
“We are now not just signing players because a friend of a friend knows someone that is good or an agent that is close to someone,” Neville said. “We are signing players because they have been watched 20, 30, 40 times by five, six people and we know all about their family history, and everything they have done in their career. We are not signing players now off a whim. We are signing players because they fit into what we believe is our team. I’ve had input. There are no excuses now.”
Neville, Henderson, and the rest of the group are signaling a pragmatic embrace of high tempo, set-piece physicality and direct play. They want opposing teams’ visits to DRV PNK Stadium to feel more like work and less like a trip to the beach.
“We need to take advantage of the weather down here, especially in the summer,” said Henderson on Monday. “And some of that comes into how you play, dictating the game, keeping possession in the other team’s half, making some teams chase, and maybe we didn’t do that well enough last year. And I think that will give you an advantage of being able to tire out teams, and get greater opportunities in the end of games. But that comes down to every day at training, and it started today. I noticed the energy and the players getting around the field at a higher pace.”
All that means more work for the home team, too. Placing graft ahead of glitz runs counter to what we all expected from MLS in Miami, yet the players sound eager to embrace it.
“We needed, I think, some youth in our team, some people who are going to be able to run the entire game, full-out. We need to be able to just press teams, go at teams, and I think that’s what we’re going to be able to do this year with the signings that we’ve made,” said talented young attacker Robbie Robinson. “I think it’s going to have a big impact in energy level and just being able to just produce more chances and last the entire game.”
As much drama and difficulty as Inter have faced so far, the club can call on significant advantages.
Ownership remains among the wealthiest and most aggressive in MLS. The region’s tropical charms remain alluring to players and staff. Henderson is just one of several experienced, highly-rated staffers to have stepped on board, along with the likes of player personnel director Meghan Cameron, data analyst Sam Gregory, veteran scout Mark Prizant and Dawn Scott, the performance guru who earned global acclaim for her work with the US and England women’s national teams.
Crucially, the long-running quest for a permanent home stadium in Miami may finally be close to fulfillment. The club has reportedly reached agreement with the city on the billion-dollar Miami Freedom Park project and will submit it to a city commission vote in the coming weeks. If it reaches fruition, it stands to be one of the finest soccer venues in North America.
Last month New York City FC capped a seven-year rise from well-funded underachievers to MLS Cup champions. Along comparable lines, even a modest, measured uptick in capacity and efficiency could make Inter Miami a much tougher prospect for the rest of the league going forward.
More from Charles Boehm:
- US Soccer circles back to the National Training Center concept
- What this week’s MLS coaching announcements tell us
- Bill Jeffrey, Altoona, and the history of American soccer
- The USMNT’s unique winter
Photo by MLS