After weeks of moping around, there has been a pep in the step of Inter Miami players and coaches following the team’s inspired performance in a 1-1 tie against the Philadelphia Union last Sunday.
Although Miami had to settle for a draw after conceding an 85th-minute equalizer — “nervousness in the last 10 minutes cost us three points”, said coach Phil Neville — the result was a welcome respite after suffering through a six-game losing streak.
Neville hopes his team can build off that Saturday at home against CF Montreal (8 p.m., CBS4). Miami lost both previous games against Montreal this season, 2-0 at home on May 12 and 1-0 on the road on July 3.
“The feeling from the weekend’s game is that it’s a lot more positive than it has been in the previous month,” Neville said. “We see it as a little baby step forward in terms of the attitude and performance, but it’s only a small brick laid in the foundation, and we need to keep building on that.”
Defender Nico Figal agreed that the team spirit has improved this week.
“The mood definitely got much better because we confronted a rival, a hard-fought game after coming from a hard loss,” he said. “We want this to be the beginning, the beginning of a new start for us to believe and for Inter Miami to reach its objectives which is to fight for the championship.”
Miami expects a tough game from Montreal, which is in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with six wins, five losses and three ties (22 points). Miami is at the bottom of the table, in 14th place with two wins, eight losses and three ties (nine points).
“We’re under no illusions…Montreal in the two previous games we played against them have deservedly come out winners,” Neville said. “We need to perform better. It’s the start of a three-game week, three real big games for us, two at home and one in Orlando.
“I want to see the fight, the togetherness, and the attitude we saw against Philadelphia. If we get that, I’ll be really happy. What we’ve done in the past is make a baby step forward and then two steps back.”
Neville expects to keep the same starters he used against Philadelphia, which means Blaise Matuidi will not be in the lineup. The starting midfield will be Lewis Morgan, Victor Ulloa, Federico Higuain, and Gregore.
Rodolfo Pizarro is not available as he is with the Mexican Gold Cup team, which faces the United States in the championship game on Sunday night. Pizarro was a late-game sub in Mexico’s semifinal against Canada on Thursday and provided the game-winning assist.
“We’ve got three games in the week, so the team I pick on Saturday probably won’t be the team that plays throughout the week because of the intensity of the game and short time between games,” Neville said. “Blaise will get other opportunities, but it’s going to be very difficult to change a winning team. Blaise has had a fantastic week training. His attitude has been brilliant, and he’s accepted responsibility for not being involved and bounced back in the only way I knew he would because he’s a great person.”
The one Designated Player who will be on the field is Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine forward displayed his improved fitness last Sunday and delivered a perfect pass to set up Robbie Robinson’s goal. Higuain is the team’s leading scorer with five of Miami’s 10 goals. He also has two assists.
Higuain, who made a career as a sniper in the box, has become “50 percent creator, 50 percent goal scorer” Neville said. He is being asked by Inter Miami coaches to emphasize scoring, as Miami is the league’s lowest-scoring team.
“We’ve seen him play in the Champions League, top level European football where he’s always been that last one on the ball running through and that ability to play those slide passes through,” Neville said. “Now, he probably sees himself more as a creator than a goal scorer, but we need him to be No. 9. We need him to score goals. We’re challenging him, telling him he needs to keep stretching the teams, keep running in behind.”
Neville said he left Higuain in the game for 87 minutes “because he can produce that one moment, that pass (on Robinson’s goal) was something that no one else on our team could probably play, apart from probably his brother.”
Federico Higuain, Gonzalo’s older brother, was instrumental in distributing the ball and connecting the back line with the attackers.
Inter Miami will have its hands full with Montreal, a young, hungry team that is familiar with DRV PNK Stadium as that was their “home” field for three months due to COVID cross-border travel restrictions. Neville has been particularly impressed with midfielder Dorde Mihailovic.
One key, he said, is maintaining possession of the ball, especially late in the game. Neville said Miami had 16 or 18 sequences of eight passes or more before scoring the goal in the 71st minute last Sunday, but only one such sequence after the goal. Players understandably retreated “because they were in survival mode, let’s just get this victory”, Neville said. “We just need a little more composure.”
Federico Higuain called the upcoming game “the most important of the season” and said the team is determined to finally give its loyal fans a home victory.