Inter Miami need Campana-Martinez pairing to click if the Herons hope to meet fans' expectations this season.
By Ken Garner
Club Internacionale de Futbol Miami pleasantly surprised supporters last year, when Gonzalo Higuain found the best form of his Inter Miami tenure in time to lead a radically rebuilt Herons side to its first real playoff berth.
Last year's feel-good season is in the books, and the 2023 Herons are beginning to write their sequel with dramatically higher expectations. The signing of former MLS Most Valuable Player Josef Martinez from Atlanta United to replace now-retired Comeback Player of the Year Higuain, trading center back Damion Lowe to make room for Ukrainian veteran Serhiy Kryvtsov, and the continued speculation about the coming of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi all are plotlines that, as they unwind, will shape the Herons' story.
Four matches into the season, that optimism has been replaced by anxiety. Designated player Leonardo Campana has yet to play, former MVP Martinez has yet to score, and team captain and Inter MIami "glue guy" Gregore suffered a lisfranc foot injury against New York City FC and will miss six months recovering from surgery.
La Rosanegra looked like the playoff contender they hope to be in the season's first two contests, consecutive 2-0 wins at DRV PNK Stadium against Montreal and Philadelphia. A vastly improved defense and strong midfield play compensated for an attack missing Campana (who injured his left calf in the final week of preseason training) and waiting for Martinez to play his way into shape.
The offense failed to score in a 1-0 own-goal loss against New York City FC in criminally under-sized Yankee Stadium and was shut out again Saturday in a 2-0 loss at Toronto. Without Gregore anchoring the defense, the then winless Reds shredded Inter Miami's midfield and kept the backline and goalkeeper Drake Callender under pressure, especially in the second half.
Fortunately, the Herons return to South Florida this week to host the Chicago Fire, and I'm cautiously optimistic Campana will be available to lead the attack (Martinez has been called up for Venezuela's national team). The Phil Neville-Chris Henderson brain trust's first priority is to replace Gregore's defensive savvy and leadership in the midfield; priority Number 2 is getting better production from the offense.
Oh, Lords of the Pitch, smile favorably on the pairing of Martinez and Campana when they finally take the pitch together. May they at least equal the production Higuain and the Ecuadoran Campana provided a season ago, when they combined for 27 goals and 4 assists. Martinez scored 82 goals with 10 assists in his first three MLS seasons, but injuries held him to just 21 goals and 4 assists since 2020. Campana scored 11 times and assisted once in his first season with the Herons.
Strikers are famously greedy with the ball; can Campana and Martinez function together as a front two? Ideally, Campana will be the strong, holdup pivot feeding Martinez and the Herons' speedy wingers, while the wily Venezuelan dissects defenses with his runs, receiving the ball in scoring positions or opening space for trailers.
Most observers accept that Campana-Martinez will provide acceptable offense. Defense, on the other hand, could be a liability. Neither striker has the pace to successfully press opponents' backlines, allowing the ball to progress quickly into the midfield before the Herons have regained their defensive shape, creating chaos in the final third.
It's a valid concern. Campana and Martinez will have to commit to constant communication and Herculean work ethic to compensate for their lack of quickness, but I think they can do it if they decide to make the effort.
Have patience. Remember, we're only four matches into a 34-match season. The goals will come, and come more frequently as the season progresses.