Psst! Don't look now, but the kids in Miami are alright. More than alright; with Major League Soccer paused for a three-week international break, Inter Miami is in a playoff position!
Just two short months ago, any reasonable onlooker would have said the team was a mess. Disorganized and sloppy, they managed just one point in their first five matches. A scoreless draw against Chicago in the opener was followed by four straight losses, and Miami had been outscored 13 (!!!) to 3. Miami's futbol team was igniting passions in south Florida, alright; fans were passionately calling for coach Phil Neville's job, for disappointing star Gonzalo Higuain's trade, for a big signing to jump-start the Herons' season.
Not even sporting director Chris Henderson was immune, with supporters wondering how much he really contributed to building the Seattle dynasty's' deep young roster.
On April 2, Inter Miami lost 3-1 to the Houston Dynamo at DRV PNK Stadium. Nobody knew it then, but the Herons were about to take flight. Since that match, the Men in Pink have won five league matches, lost two and tied two. Suddenly, they were competent on both sides of the pitch, scoring 12 goals and surrendering nine in league play. (The Herons also won two matches in their first-ever foray into Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play before Sunshine State rival Orlando City ousted them in a heart-breaking round-of-16 match decided by penalty kicks).
Phil Neville's Inter Miami are threatening the MLS playoffs
Suddenly, the team is playing exciting, often beautiful, soccer! The turnaround started when Neville started Leonardo Campana, a 21-year-old Ecuadorian on loan from Wolverhampton of the English Premier League, for an ailing Higuain against New England. Flanked by speedster Ariel Lassiter and mobile Robbie Robinson, Campana was a revelation against the Revolution, scoring the first hat-trick in Inter Miami history in a 3-2 win. He has started at the tip of the spear every match since, and has seven goals at the break (8, including one in Open Cup play).
Campana has been impressive as a true striker, finding dangerous positions, holding the ball and unselfishly passing to teammates, but his greatest quality may be his character. He displayed maturity and leadership beyond his years April 24 in a 2-1 win against Atlanta United.
The Ecuadorian had scored Miami's first goal and laid the ball off for Bryce Duke's game-winner; with eight minutes and stoppage time left in the close match, Neville subbed out Campana for Higuain. It must have been humbling for Pipa, a superstar in Europe whose storied career is winding down. That routine late-game substitution might have been the most important moment of the Herons' season.
Miami Herald beat writer Michelle Kauffman described the moment in a Tweet: "Gonzalo Higuain enters game for Leo Campana in 82nd minute. Some fans boo, Campana shakes his head, wags his finger at fans, urging them not to boo. He hugs Higuain as the Argentine heads onto the field."
MLSsoccer.com national writer Charles Boehm recognized just how significant that moment might be for the Herons. On the day of the match, after sharing Kauffman's Tweet, he wrote this:
""What may turn out to be a fundamental inflection point in IMCF’s season, even their entire brief existence as a club, flashed before the eyes of their home faithful while the cameras were focused elsewhere: A 21-year-old striker taking the mantle from – and paying tribute to – the 34-year-old legend whose level he has eclipsed in recent weeks, sparking new life into their team’s previously moribund campaign with a series of complete performances.""- Charles Boehm, MLSsoccer.com
Coach Phil Neville didn't miss the leadership Campana displayed, either. “When he walked off the field, I thought that was class. I thought that was real class – that's a boy that respects people that have been there and done it in the game,” Neville said after the match, “and I thought that was everything that we want in the squad.”
Note to Henderson: Please, please, please sign Campana.
Still, despite his importance to the squad, the young striker isn't the only reason for the Herons' turnaround. An old adage, one I still believe, says defense wins championships. No, the Herons aren't likely to hoist the MLS Cup this season or, probably next, but their dramatic improvement in keeping the ball out of their own net makes a playoff run possible.
Defender Christopher McVey has started all 14 matches and played a team-high 1,260 minutes for Inter Miami, logging time at center-back, left-back and occasionally on the left wing. He and center-back Damian Lowe, a Jamaican international, have helped mend the Herons' leaky defense, but goalkeeper Drake Callender, thrust into the lineup after Nick Marsman's injury, has been terrific between the pipes. In six appearances, all starts, Callender has saved 28 shots -- 80 percent of the shots he's faced -- and allowed just seven goals. He had back-to-back clean sheets in a scoreless tie at Eastern Conference titan Philadelphia and in a 2-0 home win against New York Red Bulls.
That trio, along with U.S. Men's National Team defender Deandre Yedlin, a fixture at right back, and defensive midfielders Gregore and Jean Mota, have earned the trust of their attacking teammates. Duke, Lassiter, Robinson, and Robert Taylor pour forward with pace and purpose, using their speed to widen the field and create space for one another. It's the kind of exciting, attractive, choreographed attack that Neville has promised since arriving in South Florida and it can be, at times, a wondrous thing. Something many supporters couldn't imagine two months ago.
Here's hoping the layoff won't derail the Heron's rhythm. Inter Miami return to action June 19 in Atlanta.