Inter Miami entered its debut season with sky-high expectations, but a difficult first year ended with a large thud.
The reset button has already been pushed as a result, but the lofty goals remain largely intact.
Inter Miami is headed into its sophomore season in MLS, but with a lot of new faces on and off the field. Gone are head coach Diego Alonso and sporting director Paul McDonough after a subpar expansion campaign, and in their respective places are offseason hires Phil Neville and Chris Henderson.
Neville and Henderson head into the new year with some fresh ideas and a noticeably revamped squad. There are some returning players like Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi, but several changes have been made to a roster that finished in 10th place in the Eastern Conference in 2020.
Still, for all the tweaks and moves, one main focus for this team is to establish a defined identity. The Herons visibly lacked that during their expansion season, and changing that for the better is one of the primary goals for the new regime.
“I think what I want more than anything and the owners do as well that when people come to this stadium there is a certain one or two things that they see,” said Neville. “They see an identity of the team, a team that is fighting for the badge of Inter Miami. I think that is really important. A team that is fighting, a team that is together, a team that shows good spirit.
“I think in any successful team, when you talk about the great teams in any sport, I think they are the fundamentals that will make any team successful.”
Of course, any team that has David Beckham associated with it will need to be at a very good standard. Competing at a high level as soon as possible is the job Neville, Henderson, and the entire squad have ahead of them as Inter Miami attempts to achieve its goal of becoming one of the premier sides in Major League Soccer and the world.
That is certainly not going to be an easy task, but Inter Miami is confident the right pieces have been put in place to create a renewed energy in camp that can make that feat achievable.
“We want to compete for championships every year,” said Henderson. “I think we as a global club and a team that can compete with the elite in this league, when you build competition and when have a clear identity of how you want to play then you can get to that position.”
Here is a closer look at 2021 Inter Miami:
2021 Inter Miami Season Preview
2020 Finish: 10th place in East (7-13-3, 24 points, lost in the play-in round of the postseason)
Key Acquisitions: Gregore, Ryan Shawcross, Kelvin Leerdam, Joevin Jones, Kieran Gibbs*, Nick Marsman*
Key Losses: Luis Robles, Juan Agudelo, Wil Trapp, Andres Reyes, Ben Sweat, Dylan Nealis
Newcomer to Watch: Gregore
Henderson’s notable track record in MLS speaks for itself, so the fact that he went out and made Gregore one of the first signings after being appointed sporting director speaks highly of the Brazilian midfielder who last played for Bahia. Inter Miami needed a bit more bite and range in the center of the park, and the 26-year-old Targeted Allocation Money player should provide that and more as he enters what are expected to be the prime years of his career.
“The boy has come here to win,” said Neville. “You can tell by the way his actions are, the way he speaks, his body language. He has come here to win and he is really determined. Now he is a little bit behind everybody else in terms of the preparation physically because his season finished 3-4 weeks ago and he has had that period of rest that we wanted him to have.
“He is playing a little bit of a catch up, but he has been really impressive so far.”
Pressure is On: Gonzalo Higuain
One goal off a free kick. That is all Higuain managed to produce for Inter Miami in 2020 after signing a deal that reportedly made him the highest-paid player in the league. The Herons need him to step up and play to the level he is capable of this year if they are to come anywhere close to what they think they can be, meaning he has to provide his lethal goal-scoring exploits on a regular basis. The good news is that foreign-based additions sometimes really take off in Year 2, which has to be the hope for Inter Miami. All of the team’s Designated Players need to raise their levels, but none more so than Higuain.
No one on Inter Miami was planning for a dreadful debut last year, but that is more or less how things played out for the South Florida side.
Inter Miami struggled mightily over the course of its expansion season in 2020, leading to a significant overhaul in leadership positions. Team co-owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas opted to blow up a lot of what was built over the winter, removing manager Diego Alonso and sporting director Paul McDonough after just one campaign and replacing them with Phil Neville and Chris Henderson.
While the Henderson hire is widely seen as a good one given his successful track record with the Seattle Sounders, there are questions about Neville. He joins Inter Miami having never served as a head coach of a men’s team or at the club level and his close friendship with Beckham is well-documented.
Still, Inter Miami is fully confident that Neville has what it takes to introduce a new way of doing things that can help steer the ship around.
“I have seen what best practices are when you walk into the training ground,” said Neville, who last managed England’s women’s national team. “We have to behave in a certain way and I call it elite behavior. Elite behavior is doing the right thing every minute of every single day.
“I have lived that myself as a player and I have seen and coached that way with some of the best players in both the men’s and women’s games. Ultimately I am coming into this job to instill those values into this football club about what it takes to actually win.”
If Inter Miami is going to establish that winning culture, then it needs to get the most out of the top-end of its roster. There is certainly some star power in the squad with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, and Rodolfo Pizarro, but none of those three talents really lived up to their billing last season.
“For us to be successful this year, you need your big players to do well,” said Neville.
The veteran trio will also have to take things up a notch to better complement the team’s 2020 breakout star, Lewis Morgan, and solid defenders like the returning Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
New signings like holding midfielder Gregore and centerback Ryan Shawcross, MLS Cup-winning fullbacks Kelvin Leerdam and Joevin Jones, and impending summer arrivals Kieran Gibbs and Nick Marsman will also have to do their parts if Inter Miami is to contend with the best in the Eastern Conference.
Depth on the squad seems like a bit of a question mark, however. The team shed a lot of the veteran role players it had on the roster this offseason, and went in a younger and less experienced direction by signing several players from the academy, USL team, and MLS Draft.
“We spoke about the youth system that we have got here,” said Neville. “I have got great experience being produced myself as a young player and then giving opportunities to young players as a coach.”
Regardless of the makeup of the roster, Inter Miami wants to try and play more a proactive style of soccer than it did a season ago. Neville and his players have talked about working on a possession-based and high-pressing style, and there has already been glimpses of the team playing in both 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations.
Yet while the focus is on what lies ahead, the largely forgettable season that was 2020 is still casting a largely shadow over Inter Miami as it heads into the new campaign. Major League Soccer is in the midst of finishing up an investigation into last year’s signing of Matuidi, and the team also has to find a way to get roster compliant by getting down to three DPs. Young attacker Matias Pellegrini certainly seems like the odd-man out, but how the Herons go about solving this issue is a question that has been following the team for weeks.
Another dilemma Inter Miami has had in a preseason that it has largely tried to keep under wraps is that the side has not been able to play many friendlies. Six different preparation matches were canceled for various reasons, leaving Neville and his players to get just two tuneups against other opposition.
“It is obviously challenging for us to prepare for a season this way,” said sporting Henderson. “You cannot just schedule the games you want and everything is going to work the way you want. We have tried to make the best of the situation.
“I think there will be plenty of teams in the league who are going to be figuring things out and what their team really looks like one, two months into the season.”
In the end, though, none of that will likely serve as an excuse if Inter Miami falls well short of its goals yet again. The task is tougher this time, too, as only the top seven teams from each conference will make the postseason compared to the 10 that were allowed in the east in 2020.
That said, Inter Miami believes it has started to build the right type of culture this offseason and that it will produce both wins and a real identity.
“I feel like what happened happened. It is time to turn the page,” Nicolas Figal told SBI of the 2020 season. “… I think if all of us are helping and understanding what we did well and what we did not do well, the group will work and give people something to talk about.”
Inter Miami Roster
Goalkeeper: John McCarthy, Dylan Castanheira, Drake Callender, Nick Marsman*
Defenders: Kelvin Leerdam, Nicolas Figal, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Joevin Jones, Ryan Shawcross, Christian Makoun, Ian Fray, Patrick Seagrist, Aime Mabika^, Kieran Gibbs*
Midfielders: Lewis Morgan, Gregore, Blaise Matuidi, Rodolfo Pizarro, Josh Penn, Victor Ulloa, Jay Chapman, Matias Pellegrini, Federico Higuain, Brek Shea, Edison Azcona, George Acosta
Forwards: Gonzalo Higuain, Julian Carranza, Robbie Robinson, Felipe Valencia
(* = won’t join team until summer, ^ = expected to sign soon)