Inter Miami coach Phil Neville went with a more defensive lineup on the road against Orlando City on Wednesday night, and the strategy worked.
Miami rallied for a 1-1 tie, extending a three-game unbeaten streak after six consecutive losses.
Miami contained Orlando’s potent attack much of the night, allowed just one goal right before halftime and got the equalizing goal from unlikely sources – a spinning header from left back Kieran Gibbs off a pinpoint long cross from holding midfielder Victor Ulloa in the 66th minute.
Ulloa, one of the team’s steadiest midfielders, has been challenged by Neville to make longer more offensive-minded passes at times instead of safer, shorter passes. He clearly was listening. It was the first MLS goal for Gibbs, the former Arsenal back, who recently joined Miami from West Brom and said he is still getting acclimated to the weather and the league.
“They have a fantastic side with really good players, but I also for the last two or three days have had so much belief and confidence in what we wanted to do,” Neville said. “We had a system of play we thought would cause them problems and it did. I still think we can play better in terms of possession, but we played really solid defensively. We are beginning to resemble a team that can fight back from disappointments, going a goal down and competing against the best teams -- Philadelphia, Montreal and Orlando.”
Miami also got a rare stroke of good fortune, for a change. Orlando City appeared to take a 2-1 lead in the 81st minute on a goal by Tesho Akindele off a through ball from Kyle Smith, but it was ruled off-side.
Miami, desperate to climb out of last place in the Eastern Conference, improved to 3-8-4 with 13 points. Second-place Orlando is 8-4-5 for 29 points.
Neville said he was “massively proud” of his team, but there is a long road ahead with 19 games remaining.
“We’ve done nothing yet, we’ve achieved nothing yet,” Neville said. “We’ve just gone three games unbeaten and need to keep the run going.”
Gibbs added: “We’re unbeaten in the last three, it was a strong enough performance to show what we can do, though there is a lot of room for improvement. But overall we’re happy. It’s been a positive couple of weeks and we just want to keep that going.”
As for his goal, Gibbs said: “I just gambled, really. Victor’s got a nice delivery of the ball and we had to try to cause them a fret at the top of the pitch as much as possible. It was a strange game. It came in waves. We were good and then we were sloppy. I’m just happy we managed to keep the unbeaten run going.”
Neville heaped praise on Ulloa, who has been one of the team’s most consistent players.
“Victor can play anywhere on the pitch. He was outstanding. He got cramped in every part of his body in the end, but that’s what he gives you. He’s someone we value so much.”
The game remained scoreless through 45 minutes with Miami’s compact defense and organized midfield closing spaces and restricting Orlando’s attack. But then Portuguese winger Nani – who else? -- came through for Orlando during first-half stoppage time to break the deadlock and give the home team the lead.
The Lions played a short corner kick and Nani curled in a cross to the forehead of Antonio Carlos, who headed it past Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman to the far corner just before the teams headed to the locker rooms.
French midfielder Blaise Matuidi returned to the Miami starting lineup after two games on the bench, and he played with intensity that had been missing in some games during a recent six-game losing skid. Matuidi and Nani battled all night, exchanging words early.
It was Nani who six weeks ago broke Inter Miami fans’ hearts, providing an assist and a goal in the final 20 minutes to rally Orlando to a 2-1 victory at Miami’s home stadium.
Neville and his players spoke about the need to contain Nani on Wednesday night, and it took a full team effort.
Miami had a chance to equalize in the 52nd minute on a Robbie Robinson breakaway. His left-footed shot appeared to be going in before Orlando defender Kyle Smith made a heady goal line clearance. Robinson went down hard a few minutes later and left the game, replaced by Rodolfo Pizarro, who returned to the team after missing two games while on duty with Mexico’s Gold Cup team.
Miami center back Ryan Shawcross missed a second game in a row with back spasms.
The other Miami starting center back, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, was suspended from the game for yellow card accumulation and was replaced by Christian Makoun.
Miami returns home on Sunday for a 6 p.m. game against Nashville SC.