Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham returned to DRV PNK Stadium on Sunday for the first time since early May, sporting a stylish suit and platinum blond hair.
He smiled and posed for fan selfies, just as he did seven years ago at a Miami news conference when he revealed his dreams of a packed waterfront stadium, global superstar players and a Major League Soccer championship run.
Beckham never imagined that in July 2021 he would be sitting with co-owner Jorge Mas at the club’s temporary Fort Lauderdale stadium watching their last-place team scratch and claw for a 1-1 tie to end a six-game losing skid.
That is not what anybody expected from Inter Miami, a high-profile team with the league’s highest payroll.
First-year coach Phil Neville, who is Beckham’s friend and former Manchester United and England teammate, is trying desperately to right the ship. “This club has had a lot of expectations and a lot of disappointments,” he said. He is determined to turn a seemingly rudderless group of players into a cohesive, gritty team that will “fight for each other and for the Inter Miami badge.”
Known for being highly organized, a tireless worker and a good communicator, Neville was expected to bring a winning mentality, “the Manchester United DNA,” to an Inter Miami team that finished 10th of 14 Eastern Conference teams in its debut season under former coach Diego Alonso.
It has proven a complicated task.
Through 13 games, about one-third of the season, Inter Miami has two wins, eight losses and three ties and has scored a league-low 10 goals.
Meanwhile, the other 2020 expansion team, Nashville SC, the one that came into the league with far less fanfare but a clearer playing style, has become one of the league’s stronger teams. Nashville is in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-1-8 record and has scored 24 goals.
“From the outside, Inter Miami is a club that has spent more than anybody on players, on the brand, and on a stadium — even though it’s temporary, it’s better than some of teams’ permanent stadiums — and with that has come huge expectations given that it’s David Beckham and Miami. Unfortunately, it has failed to live up,” said Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas.
“And not just unfortunately for the Miami area fans, but for the league. A good Miami is good for Major League Soccer. So, this is not good for MLS. Some of the problems you can see from the outside, but I’m sure it’s a whole lot deeper and much more fundamental from the inside. [New sporting director] Chris Henderson has his work cut out for him.”
How did Inter Miami wind up in the league cellar?
It is a loaded question that has no simple answer. There is blame to go around.
Observers say ownership overpromised, waited too long to hire its first coach and relied too much on former sporting director Paul McDonough. They wound up with more than $2 million in fines for breaking league roster and budget rules related to the contracts of five players. One team owner, Marcelo Claure, has distanced himself from the team this season and multiple sources said he is considering selling his stake in the club. Claure was unavailable for comment.
Owners also arguably overspent on three Designated Players — Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, Rodolfo Pizarro — who have not lived up to their reputations.
The team played very well last Sunday without Matuidi, who was benched, and Pizarro, who was on duty with the Mexican national team.
The coaches — first Alonso and now Neville — have struggled to impose a style of play and unify a locker room complicated by language and cultural differences and varying levels of MLS experience.
Neville tried to go with a four-captain rotation but ditched that idea last week and named Brazilian midfielder Gregore as the sole captain. The team responded and Neville said Sunday’s performance was “baby steps” they will build on going forward. With 21 games remaining, and a league known for parity, Neville is hopeful his team can make a second-half run.
“There are a lot of layers to this conversation,” said ESPN commentator Alejandro Moreno, a former forward for the Venezuelan national team who played 11 years in MLS. “The team came in with all sorts of expectations that they created for themselves because of the way they were selling their product, telling everyone, `We have big plans. There’s going to be big names. There’s going to be an excitement to this club. You’re going to want to be involved with our brand.’
“When you yell and scream from that sort of stage people are going to pay attention. Whenever David Beckham is involved in anything, it does attract a different set of eyes. It’s a blessing and a curse. These other clubs coming into the league do not share that big of a stage. Inter Miami overpromised and has underdelivered.”
Lalas admires the boldness and big spending of Inter Miami’s ownership group. He feels MLS needs more owners willing to open their checkbooks. But he agrees with Moreno that the owners overpromised.
“We were sold a product in a really pretty box and when we opened it, it was a cubic zirconia,” Lalas said. “You’d rather have a beautiful high-quality diamond in a crappy box.”
The club has a chic black-and-pink logo and slick marketing campaigns. It has a massive following on social media. The club Instagram account has a million followers. Beckham has 67.5 million followers. Matuidi, a French World Cup winner, has 5.3 million followers.
By contrast, MLS power Seattle Sounders has 326,000 Instagram followers and Nashville SC has 76,400.
Despite Miami’s struggles, three of the top 10-selling jerseys last season were Pizarro’s (fifth place), Gonzalo Higuain’s (sixth) and Matuidi’s (ninth).
Moreno played in MLS when Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy in 2007. He remembers the Beckham effect on the league, how every game he played in had an extra spotlight.
“We all knew that people are there to see David Beckham, but if we want them to come back, we have to play better,” Moreno said. “It’s the same with Inter Miami. People are there to see David Beckham’s team, but if the product on the field isn’t good, they will stop coming.”
Lalas added: “There’s not enough peroxide to distract us from the train wreck that is Inter Miami. I don’t know if there is a simple solution. It might be a long-term digging out, and that’s too bad for a fan base that has been so supportive. You can only drink so much beer and sing so many songs.
“The shine will lose its luster and people will look elsewhere for things to do. You only get that first chance to make a first impression and the first impression hasn’t been great. It’s not a good look for the team, for David Beckham and for the league.”
One key problem is the makeup of the roster.
“When you don’t have your big-money, big-name players firing on all cylinders on a consistent basis, you’ve got problems,” Lalas said. “Your consistent type of MLS performer that understands what the league is and what it isn’t is lacking and you have a coach who is still figuring it out, getting a crash course on the realities of MLS. It’s not for lack of spending, but the spending has not been smart.”
Because Miami is a glitzy city that likes celebrities, the team aimed for big names. That approach doesn’t always work in MLS.
“Foreign players sell,” Lalas said. “They are sexier to the general public because they are equated with quality. The reality is, though, that there are incredible talents that are devalued simply because they are domestic. And not necessarily just American or Canadian, could be a player who has been in the league for a long time. Time and time again, the teams that have had success are littered with players that may not be sexy names but they understand exactly what this league is.”
Higuain and Matuidi came from Italian power Juventus. Higuain, the Argentine forward, was known as a clinical finisher. Matuidi was hired to be a box-to-box defensive midfielder. Pizarro was supposed to be the creative playmaker.
None of the three have lived up to expectations and all have shown signs of frustration. Higuain remained out of shape in early July before going on a strict fitness plan. When Matuidi was benched at halftime of the 5-0 loss to New England, he left the stadium.
“Too many times, Higuain has been walking and Pizarro hasn’t really been involved,” Moreno said. “If these are going to be the big names for you, if Higuain is, indeed, your flagbearer, face of the franchise, then take that with some pride as a player who has been around the world playing at the highest level.
“The high-end players have to be productive and set an example. While it’s critical that he score goals, it’s also about attitude and movement and passion, which he has done at times. But other times it’s like, `This is a bad team, not much I can do about it, we’ll just accept this and move on’. If that’s the attitude coming from your best player, it trickles down to the rest of the group.”
Moreno said he was skeptical when he heard Neville had named four captains -- Higuain, Matuidi, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Victor Ulloa.
“You can put an armband on somebody and say `This is the captain’, but the players know who they can trust and follow,” Moreno said. “A rotation doesn’t work. I think Phil Neville walked into a locker room with senior players who have played at the highest level with the most important teams around the world and it would be difficult to say to them, `I don’t trust that you can lead this team because your inconsistency and attitude and inability to deliver on the field will hurt the rest of the group’. Because he couldn’t make that decision, he went with a rotation.
“Now, they’re back to what should have been from the beginning, which is a hard-fighting, competing team that will challenge you physically, close down spaces and may win a game 1-0, three points, move on. That’s what he’s looking for, and it has taken a long and winding route to get to this point. It’s a learning experience for everybody.”
Like many Europe-based players who join MLS, Higuain and Matuidi have had to adjust their mind-set.
“This is a complete shock to the system in that they have lived in a world where they played on the best teams and were surrounded by the best talent,” Lalas said. “With that comes the comfort level that when they step on the field, 70-80 percent of the time they will win because they have more talent. That is not the case in MLS because of the parity here. You’re not in Torino anymore.”
Despite the troubles, the season can be salvaged. There is time to make roster changes.
“This is a forgiving league,” Lalas said. “The parity is there, so what separates the good and bad is often very minimal. There is plenty of history of teams turning it around the second half of the season.
“Some teams in Miami’s situation might take a longer-term approach to fix things, but Inter Miami ownership branded the team as something bigger, better and bold. So, they have to deliver on that. It will take creativity and tough decisions. Otherwise, they completely abandon and betray that identity and ethos that was such big part of their marketing plan.”