With 35 seconds and one perfectly weighted swing of his foot, Leonardo Campana started to erase three seasons of frustrating results, close calls and unsatisfied hype for Inter Miami CF.
It was the fastest goal in club history — a flawlessly executed, beautifully arcing chip shot in the 35th second of the penultimate game of the regular season — and it immediately sent Inter Miami to the brink of its first trip to the MLS Cup playoffs proper Wednesday. All Miami would have to do was fend off a furious rally from rival Orlando City SC for the next 90 minutes and change.
About two hours later, the final whistle blew in Fort Lauderdale. It was a 4-1 rout for Inter Miami, and the crowd of 15,228 at DRV PNK Stadium exploded. For the first time, they could celebrate a true, no-doubt playoff team.
Miami, which was winless until its sixth match of the season and down as low as 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings with just 15 games to go, is heading to the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs.
“When you look at the performances over the last two years of the organization,” coach Phil Neville said, “I think you would’ve been more silly tipping us to get in the playoffs.”
Inter Miami’s first three years in MLS have been marked by off-field scandal, perennial rumors about Lionel Messi and other international superstars, a messy debate about a stadium in Miami and, above all else, lots and lots of ugly performances.
In its debut season, Inter Miami made the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs only because COVID-19 led the league to expand its postseason to 10 teams per conference and Miami just barely sneaked in as the 10th team in the East before promptly losing by three goals in the play-in round. In Year 2, Inter Miami finished 11th in the East and ended its first two seasons with the fourth fewest points in MLS, among teams to play both years.
Its third season started as badly as any other — it took more than a month for Miami to score multiple goals in a game — until, slowly but surely, it started to turn around. It began with three consecutive wins in April and then a four-game unbeaten run in May, and a five-game stretch without a loss from the end of July into August. It was enough to keep Inter Miami afloat in the postseason race into the final month of the season and now it’s playing its best at the moment it needs to most.
Miami (14-6-13) took a three-game winning streak into Wednesday and kept soaring the opening minute with Campana’s ice-breaking goal.
It was, in some ways, a fortunate play for Inter Miami. For a team with one of the worst offenses in the league, it was a beauty and exactly the sort of heads-up, high-skill play it needs to make.
The counterattack started with a deflection by attacking midfielder Robert Taylor, who swung his leg in the way of an Orlando City pass to send the ball bouncing into the attacking third. From there, it was a footrace, and Campana ran harder than either of Orlando’s defenders and used his first touch to loft a floating shot over the head of Orlando City goalkeeper Pablo Gallese.
Miami added another goal in the 38th minute when Gonzalo Higuain volleyed in a aerial cross from fellow forward Ariel Lassiter, and a third in the 52nd after an Orlando handball gave Higuain a penalty shot. Higuain has scored 14 goals in the past 15 games.
The days left in Higuain’s career are numbered after he announced Monday he would retire at season’s end. Those two goals helped guarantee he’ll play at least two more — the regular-season finale Sunday against CF Montreal and at least one playoff game later in October.
“Tonight, I had one of the best nights of my career because I’ve been fighting for this team, especially after such a tough start that we had at the beginning of the year,” Higuain said through an interpreter. “I was able to live all the dreams, experience all the dreams that I had and now the next one is to be a champion with this fan base, with this team, with these teammates.”
In the 56th minute, Lassiter put away Orlando (13-6-14) with the fourth goal and made the rest of the night into a celebration for South Florida. The day Inter Miami finally made the standard 14-team MLS playoffs wound up mostly being a stress-free one.
The only question left is how high Miami can climb. This win vaulted Inter Miami up to fifth place in the East, two points clear of FC Cincinnati, and one more win — coupled with a New York Red Bulls loss or draw Sunday — would mean Miami would host a first-round game in the 2022 playoffs.
“This is just the start,” Neville said. “I want a home playoff. ... Teams that come into DRV PNK more often than not lose.”