The record books will state that Inter Miami made its MLS debut in 2020, and technically that is true. But as Season 2 training camp opens Monday, club owners have pushed a restart button and are considering 2021 the true dawn following a postseason front-office overhaul.
“We did some great things last year as far as brand marketing, enthusiasm, building a fantastic facility, and we competed,” co-owner Jorge Mas said. “But I really look at 2021 as a new page, new chapter and start of a new journey… We as ownership are looking at 2021 as a great year, and almost to a certain degree as our expansion launch year because last year was very difficult.”
Even before COVID-19 shut down MLS in mid-March, Inter Miami had faced huge hurdles entering its inaugural season. Then-coach Diego Alonso wasn’t hired until Dec. 30, 2019, three weeks before the start of camp. By then, much of the roster had already been signed by then-sporting director Paul McDonough.
Dynamic Mexican midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro was not signed until a week before the season opener at Los Angeles FC, and two other marquee players Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi did not join until late summer. Co-owner David Beckham, the face of the franchise and an inspiration to players, was across the Atlantic Ocean from the team all season due to COVID travel restrictions.
The team, which begin with huge expectations, backed into the final playoff spot and was eliminated 3-0 in the first round by fellow expansion club Nashville SC.
McDonough stepped down following the season, and the team parted ways with Alonso in early January. Chris Henderson, a former Miami Fusion player, was hired from the Seattle Sounders to be the sporting director and chief soccer officer. Phil Neville, former Manchester United teammate Beckham, left the English women’s national team to replace Alonso.
“We had a very compressed preseason last year,” Mas said. “Our starting lineup for LAFC started practicing together seven days before. We lost at DC, a game I thought we should have won, then boom, the season ends. Everything pauses. We don’t have our roster build, don’t have our spots filled in, on and on…so I don’t think it’s fair to judge a coach or sporting director just based on a launch with all the difficulties we faced.”
Nevertheless, Mas said, front-office changes were deemed necessary.
“We as an ownership group made a decision that we’re looking forward to 2021 and beyond,” he said. “Being with the coach and sporting director for the period of time we were, we felt that what we wanted, what we aspire to as far as plans and processes, Chris and Phil would be better fits.”
The club been re-energized with the changes and the return of Beckham, but the true test begins when the team steps on the field.
Much of the roster remains intact. Offseason signings include veteran center back Ryan Shawcross of Stoke City and Brazilian midfielder Gregore, whom Henderson had been eyeing for years from Seattle. Two more signings are expected — a left back and an attacker.
Among Neville’s top priorities are strengthening the defense and finishing goal-scoring chances.
Henderson said they are committed to making Inter Miami’s defense impenetrable and its stadium “a fortress’.” He added: “With the weather conditions here, the summer, you need to have a fit team that not only keeps the ball but wears teams out in the last 20 minutes of games.”
Club leaders have also made a point of integrating the youth academy, a priority of Beckham’s. Three local teenage players were promoted to the first team — Ian Fray, Edison Azcona and Felipe Valencia, who turned 16 last week.
“I’m committed to playing them,” Neville said. “I think young people in life tend to never let you down. They have this energy, this fearless approach. They’ve got to work hard and if they’re at the level to perform, they’ll get opportunities to play in MLS. I’m guaranteeing that we want to put a kid on the field that’s got Florida blood. When the fans come, they’ll see a homegrown player and that sends a massive message to this community that local kids’ dreams can come to fruition.”
Beckham, who has been meeting with the teens, added: “I look back to when I was 9 years old at an academy. I was one of those kids, once upon a time. I know what it means when a professional player comes out to watch you or talk to you, or to your parents. I know how important that is. I’ve been there. I made a commitment to Miami eight years ago. We’re going to bring South Florida young kids a chance to have a great future in the game and an experience.”
Henderson has been part of MLS since its inception in 1996, as a player, coach and executive. He is delighted to see teens training alongside pros. And he has high hopes for his new team.
“I have great memories of playing right here at this site with the Miami Fusion, with Ray Hudson as our coach,” Henderson said. “We won the Supporters Shield. If we can win Supporters Shield again here this year, I would be super excited.”
Inter Miami 2021 Training Camp
Dates: Mar. 8 – MLS regular season opener April 17
March 20: Miami FC, Inter Miami training complex
March 27: Tampa Bay Rowdies, Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg
March 30: Charleston Battery, IMG Academy, Bradenton
April 3: New York Red Bulls, IMG Academy, Bradenton
April 3: Nashville SC, IMG Academy, Bradenton
April 10: Preseason Match at home TBA
Roster (as of Mar. 5):
Goalkeepers (3): Drake Callender, Dylan Castanheira, John McCarthy
Defenders (7): Nico Figal, Ian Fray, Leandro González Pirez, Christian Makoun, Dylan Nealis, Patrick Seagrist, Ryan Shawcross
Midfielders (12): George Acosta, Edison Azcona, Brek Shea, Jay Chapman, Blaise Matuidi, Lewis Morgan, Matías Pellegrini, Josh Penn, Rodolfo Pizarro, Victor Ulloa, Felipe Valencia, Gregore
Forwards (3): Julián Carranza, Gonzalo Higuaín, Robbie Robinson