Inter Miami has had an on-field product for less than a year, and already there has been a massive shakeup within the organization that will have a significant ripple effect for years to come.
Paul McDonough is no longer the sporting director and chief operations officer at Inter Miami after Wednesday’s shock announcement that he was stepping down from both positions with the team. The news was stunning on a lot of levels given that it seemed to come out of nowhere and that 2020 was the franchise’s first season, but at the same time it was also not entirely unpredictable.
The reality was that somebody was going to have to pay some sort of price for the dismal, disjointed, and disappointing expansion campaign that the ambitious Herons experienced this year. No one had yet, but someone was going to.
That someone ended up being McDonough, who is leaving Inter Miami probably more so because he was forced out rather than him deciding to go on his own accord. After all, there was no talk of personal reasons or a need for a change of scenery or anything of the like in the official press release. What’s more, helping hand technical director Kurt Schmid is also reportedly out, per the Athletic.
Think of this as a public divorce made to look as less messy as possible.
“Working alongside the Mas brothers to build upon the legacy of soccer in South Florida will be one of the highlights of my career,” said McDonough in the team’s prepared statement, which far too coincidentally was sent out as the U.S. Men’s National Team was about to play El Salvador in a friendly that was sure to grab plenty of the national spotlight. “I am proud of what we have accomplished and look forward to the next chapter.”
The reason McDonough is off for that next chapter, though, is likely largely due to his poor execution of Inter Miami’s vision. The team that has the famously successful David Beckham brand attached to it publicly laid out grandiose goals and self-imposed expectations from jump, and McDonough struggled to deliver on those fronts from the onset.
To start, he had serious trouble signing a coach. There were reports and rumors of McDonough trying to land Marcelo Gallardo and Patrick Vieira, but neither was brought on board. In Gallardo’s case, it was reported that negotiations broke down because Inter Miami was not willing to pay him and his technical staff what they wanted.
“I think Miami is a really, really interesting market that so many people want to come (to), but trying to get those things over the line is harder,” McDonough told Extratime Radio about his coaching search in November 2019. “They want to come and they know the quality of our ownership group, so it is sticking to your guns on what money is and things like that and terms.
“We have been having some discussions about those things with people, but I think that we always think that coaches have to be around to build clubs. I think clubs build clubs and coaches come and coach the team.”
Those words and McDonough’s approach sounded good in theory, but proved flawed in practice. Especially with the head coach he settled on.
McDonough hired Diego Alonso on Dec. 30, a mere few weeks before preseason was set to begin and well after McDonough built a large chunk of the roster without the Uruguayan’s input. What ultimately happened was that Alonso — who did not exactly match the profile of the type of proactive and possession-based coach Inter Miami initially set out for — did not rate a lot of the pieces that were already on the roster.
That became evident over the course of 2020, as Alonso — who may just be fitting plenty of the foreign MLS coach stereotypes — deemed a number of veteran MLS players surplus to requirements. Think Roman Torres. Think Lee Nguyen. Think Wil Trapp.
“For me, it is a satisfaction to have big names and good players,” said Alonso in Spanish back in September. “It is that much better for me and it is that much better for the team the more quality players and more international players we have.”
Another issue McDonough had was filling out the roster with the final two significant pieces Inter Miami needed prior to the start of the expansion campaign. He and the team stated repeatedly in preseason that they were going to sign a Designated Player striker and Targeted Allocation Money central midfielder before the games got going, but McDonough never made good on that promise and the Herons were forced to start the year with an incomplete squad.
What’s more, the eventual autumn addition of Gonzalo Higuain — which came only after publicly acknowledged misses on attempts to sign stars Edinson Cavani and Willian — seemed to contradict McDonough’s initial plans for constructing the Inter Miami roster more in line with the Atlanta United model. A lack of cohesion between vision and approach was evident.
“The ownership group could (sign a high-profile star) if they wanted to, but I don’t think it’s responsible for us just to open up a blank checkbook and just write checks because an experienced player wants it,” said McDonough in February, months before giving Higuain a deal worth a reported $7-8 million per year. “I can go get a player that has a resale value, that can help us win championships, and I think that’s more responsible.”
It also probably did not help that McDonough avoided speaking to the media since July 1 and thus never took accountability publicly for the team’s issues on and off the field. McDonough — who interestingly enough took over business operations for the ousted Jurgen Mainka in the spring — never landed a main jersey sponsor either despite stating that he thought a deal would get done this year.
Still, it would be unfair to solely point the finger at McDonough for Inter Miami’s 2020 shortcomings. There was a pandemic that impacted things, Alonso failed to get the most out of a squad that boasted more talent than the final standings indicate, and, not insignificantly, ownership made a massive mistake, too.
If you want to identify the root of the problem, look no further than Beckham and Jorge Mas. They were the ones that chose to hire McDonough in the first place despite his mixed resume in technical roles. Yes, McDonough helped build the Atlanta United side that excited and won an MLS Cup in 2018 — though plenty has been said about the influence head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino had in that roster construction — but prior to that he lasted all of one MLS season at Orlando City in his first front office experience during that team’s expansion campaign in 2015.
Beckham and Mas could have made the initial decision to go with their other top candidate, Seattle Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson, but they passed on him and opted for McDonough, a former player agent, instead. This despite Henderson’s more proven track record and success with the Sounders, whom Henderson helped turn into almost immediate winners that both claimed seven significant trophies after his appointment in 2008 and just reached their fourth MLS Cup in five years.
The trickle-down effect of that selection has reverberated throughout the franchise. All the dominoes that have fallen have done so as a result of that first choice.
Of course, the owners were not going to fire themselves for their error, so a decision had to be made this winter between letting go of one of McDonough or Alonso after an unacceptable inaugural season.
They chose to say goodbye to the former, leaving Inter Miami with even more questions, less answers, and a major front office vacancy that now needs to be filled.