Inter Miami, on the brink of elimination from the MLS playoff race, went with a new look at home against Toronto FC on Wednesday night. The experiment worked, Miami ended a six-game losing skid with a 3-0 victory, and revived its postseason hopes with four games to go.
“It feels like a relief,” Coach Phil Neville said, as Latin music blared from the locker room celebration next door. “It’s nice to have a winning feeling.”
Neville ditched his casual sports gear in favor of a dark suit and shook up his starting lineup. He started the game without two of the three high-priced Designated Players – Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro -- and without first-round draft pick Robbie Robinson. In their places were Jay Chapman, Federico Higuian and Indiana Vassilev.
Neville also decided to go with a more attack-minded system. Rather than use three center backs and two wing backs, he went with a four in back, allowing Lewis Morgan to race freely up the sideline in the attack, as he did all last season and the start of this season.
He also made a deliberate decision to start the Higuain brothers for one of the few times this season, as Gonzalo has great confidence in his older brother and Federico is a creative midfielder who makes the players around him better.
“After our loss to Columbus I went straight back to my notes to see what we did after (a 5-0 loss to) New England and what we did to change that and that was Federico and Gonzalo up front,” Neville said. “They brought control and experience, and as brothers they have a certain understanding of each other.”
Neville said he wavered back and forth between starting Pizarro or Federico Higuain, and in the end went for Federico.
“I had a feeling about Federico with this game, as Toronto did not have as much pace,” Neville said. “I felt it would have really suited them both up front. And going back to 4-2-3-1 (lineup) was something we with toyed with the previous game. It gave us an extra person in midfield and Indy and Lewis did a great job up front. We knew we were playing a team that had nothing to play for, would rotate its players, and it felt like the perfect evening for us.”
The offense, which had stalled over the past month with just one goal in the previous six games, came alive from the opening whistle. Miami players moved more freely, got forward in numbers, and Federico Higuain scored in the second minute, but it was waved offside.
Fans were still arriving at DRV PNK Stadium at that time, as horrible traffic clogged I-95 and the Turnpike. The crowd was rewarded for the long drive.
Federico Higuain scored for real in the 10th minute after pouncing on an errant pass from Toronto’s Alex Bono and sending a low shot into the net. The diehard fans in the north stands, nicknamed “La Familia”, went wild, banging their drums and shooting off pink smoke bombs. The pink party was fitting, as the game was billed as a Drive Out Cancer event and fans had been asked to wear pink.
Inter Miami had been away from home for a month, losing four games in a row on the road, and the home crowd was ready to party.
The celebration continued, reaching another crescendo in the 45th minute, when Miami defender Christian Makoun knocked in a beautiful low shot off a Gonzalo Higuain corner kick to make it 2-0.
It was Miami’s first corner kick goal of the season. Toronto defenders surely will be having nightmares of Makoun, as it was his stoppage-time penalty kick that beat Toronto 1-0 when the teams last played on Sept. 14 in Toronto.
Inter Miami entered intermission with a 2-0 lead, an unfamiliar situation for a team that had been blown out 5-0, 4-0, 5-1, and 4-0 this season. Not only was Miami in the driver’s seat, but the team was playing the kind of attractive, attacking style fans had been craving for weeks.
Neville replaced Chapman with Matuidi at the start of the second half and the scoring continued.
Morgan headed in a Federico Higuain corner kick in the 61st minute to give Miami a 3-0 lead – though it was officially credited as an own-goal by Eriq Zavaleta. After not scoring on a corner kick all season, Inter Miami did it twice on Wednesday night.
And with that, the Higuain brothers left the field and were replaced by Robinson and Pizarro.
“You could see we had big spaces to operate,” Morgan said. “Federico…it was a testament to how he works every day that he can come in and come up big for us. On a personal level, I love to play on the wing. A big chunk of the season I’ve played elsewhere, the team has to come first. But I feel more comfortable in that area, hopefully I can stay there and add more creativity in the final third.”
Miami’s good fortune Wednesday night extended to other MLS stadiums, as other results went Miami’s way to help boost their playoff chances. Miami is six points shy of the final playoff spot with four games left to play. They are home again Saturday against last-place Cincinnati.
Miami will be without defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who will be suspended through yellow card accumulation.