Put away the torches and pitchforks, Herons Nation. Phil Neville's Inter Miami is not a good soccer team right now -- actually, they're really bad. But supporters' high expectations simply aren't realistic; face it, this rebuild won't be easy.
When superstar David Beckham announced he was bringing a Major League Soccer team to Miami -- a club that would have international ambitions and a profile as glamorous as its owner -- fans naturally got excited. Adding local businessmen Jorge and Jose Mas to the ownership group further fueled expectations. It would only be a matter of time, supporters dreamed, until the Herons boasted a front line of Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez.
It hasn't worked out that way.
Inter Miami had high hopes in its inaugural season, hoping to equal the expansion success enjoyed by Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC. The Herons played 23 matches in a pandemic-shortened season and managed just seven wins and three draws for a total of 24 points. Despite finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference and sneaking into the expanded playoffs (where it lost 3-0 to Nashville), ownership fired McDonough and Alonso. The reason was a vague reference to the club's vision and the managers' not meeting it.
Enter Phil Neville, Beckham's buddy from their days playing together at Manchester United, and Chris Henderson, a former U.S. Men's National Team star and one of the architects of the Seattle Sounders' talented roster. Neville had limited coaching experience, but optimists hope that Neville's relationship with Beckham will help realize The Dream.
Last year, the Herons finished 12-17-5 (41 points), 11th in the conference and out of the playoffs.
The on-field performance was disappointing, made worse by the revelation that Miami had violated MLS salary rules to sign some of its first players. The league fined the club $2 million and reduced the allocation money it could spend by $2.1 million (spread over this year and next).
The MLS sanctions introduced Inter Miami to a new economic reality, but made it easier for Henderson and Neville to dramatically remake a roster that had sadly underperformed in the club's first two seasons. Management made more than 30 roster changes -- 30! -- in a busy offseason, moving many of last season's key players and bringing in 18 new faces.
The new-look Herons' results aren't much different from their predecessors' -- Inter Miami lost three straight matches before the first international break, after a 0-0 draw on Matchday 1. The Men in Pink scored just three times and conceded 13 goals in its first five matches. The Herons are widely believed to be the league's most hapless team through the first month. And that's a fair assessment.
Some supporters want Neville and/or Henderson out, and some are ready to cut Gonzalo Higuain, the lone DP on Inter Miami's roster. Neville's tactics and player selection have come under fire, the squad has struggled to maintain positional discipline for long stretches, and too many players are making too many errant passes. All of this can be laid at Neville's feet.
BUT...there are some major mitigating factors. Let's remember that most of these players had no experience playing together before January, and injuries have kept key veterans from playing or even practicing. Inter Miami is starting to get healthy, but it's unlikely they'll bring in any more key pieces this season. League sanctions limit Henderson's ability to sign an impact player even if a DP slot was available.
Complicating matters is that Inter Miami has no true playmaker and no dependable attacker.
In his frustration, Neville has pressured his best player, Higuain, to jumpstart the offense as both creator AND finisher. The Argentinian is talented, but that's a big ask from the coach; Higuain can't very well pass the ball to himself.
So, what do have? Forget that this is Inter Miami's third season; this is an expansion side, an expansion side weighted down with salary sanctions. We all want to see the Heron's succeed, we've invested some part of our hopes and dreams in the Beckham/Mas vision, but it just isn't realistic to expect it to happen at the snap of those well-manicured fingers. So, what needs to happen?
- Adjust expectations. Despite its branding, Inter Miami is nowhere near being an international-quality club. That's an aspirational goal; first it has to become an MLS-quality side. Pink Nation needs to understand that truly great clubs are not built overnight. It will take hard work, careful investment, a clear vision, patience, commitment, and, most importantly, time.
- Find a home. Inter Miami needs to play IN Miami. Ownership says publicly it's confident that the Miami City Council will approve plans to build Miami Freedom Park, a $1 billion stadium-commercial complex near the airport. But four of five councilors must approve leasing the property, and the vote already has been postponed several times. Beckham already has acquired property in Overtown sufficient for a stadium. Moving forward with construction there would signal supporters that ownership's priority is building a world-class soccer organization, not a real estate cash cow.
- Supporters support. Miami's passionate soccer fanbase is, understandably, restless, grumbling, and anxious for better results. Faced with adversity, they expect action; there's a real "Do something, even if it's wrong!" vibe on social media. It's not wrong to want progress, but it's not helpful to demand unrealistic gains.
If we keep our expectations in the context of our club's reality, we can better celebrate the Herons' growth, and their eventual success (I still believe in Beckham's vision) will be that much sweeter.