The rejuvenated Gonzalo Higuain came to the rescue for Inter Miami once again, scoring on a left-footed clinical finish in the 86th minute to secure a critical 1-0 road win against Toronto FC.
Desperately trying to hang onto the seventh and final playoff spot with two games to go, Miami looked like it was going to have to settle for a tie and spend the rest of the weekend hand wringing over other results. Instead, coach Phil Neville and his players can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to Higuain, who is on a torrid pace with 12 goals in the past 14 games and a team-leading 14 on the season.
Late-game substitute Robert Taylor made a nifty pass to Higuain in front of the goal and the Argentine struck an angled shot with his left foot past Toronto keeper Quentin Westberg.
“That was a very difficult match to explain, a lot of mixed emotions, level game, but this team doesn’t give up, keeps fighting and I am very, very proud to be part of this group,” Higuain said. “Apparently, we like to suffer and score in the final minutes. This was a very, very important three points and by leaving it all on the field, we showed how much we want to make the playoffs. It feels extra good because nobody expected anything from this team. This is one of the happiest times of my career.”
Higuain struggled early in the season, was booed by fans, was benched, but he said something clicked mid-summer, he took it upon himself to turn things around. He also believes there has been some divine intervention.
“It was a difficult year for me, but hard work has rewards and someone up in heaven is giving me something marvelous, with the help, I believe of my mother (who passed away last year), guiding the end of my career,” he said. “Hopefully, my dreams won’t get cut short and will go on until the MLS championship.”
Miami has two games left, both at home – Oct. 5 against Orlando City and Oct. 9 against CF Montreal.
“Another late goal shows the spirit of this team,” Neville said. “This is an amazing group and they are beginning to believe what we believed in them from Day One and it’s great to see. It helps when you have a center forward carrying the team towards the playoffs. We are fortunate, and I am lucky to manage a world-class striker.
“You think about the adversity he’s had to overcome in his Inter Miami career, it’s a testament to his character. He said he wants to finish here as a winner and he’s leading this inexperienced group...He’s got everyone on a string.”
Miami entered the game holding the last playoff spot in the East, while Toronto, already eliminated, was playing for pride. The two teams came out with intensity and there was plenty of jawing and jostling from both sides, which resulted in five yellow cards.
Both teams missed clear scoring chances on a chilly night at BMO Field, including back-to-back golden opportunities by Ariel Lassiter and Higuain in the 74th minute.
Alejandro Pozuelo, playing against his former team in Toronto for the first time since the July trade, delivered a perfect through ball to Lassiter, who got a clean look but left-footed it directly to Westberg. Higuain got his head on the rebound, but it missed to the left.
Hungry for goals, Miami went with its three most dangerous attackers -- Higuain, Leo Campana and Pozuelo.
Toronto’s defense was vulnerable, having given up 12 goals in its previous three games.
But the Toronto defenders held Miami scoreless for 85 minutes. Miami dominated possession 62 percent to 38 percent much of the night and had several decent chances. However, it was Toronto with the better first-half opportunities, including a near-goal by Lorenzo Insigne in the 44th minute that sailed just a few inches high.
Miami could have taken the lead in the 50th minute, but Jean Mota’s free kick clanked off the right post. Then, later in the second half, Campana had a golden opportunity after receiving a perfect through ball from Pozuelo but he missed the top left corner.
Miami had struggled on the road all season, winning just three of its 16 games away from DRV PNK Stadium before Friday. Neville said he showed that stat to his players and challenged them to take the fighting spirit they show at home on the road.
There was some question whether right back DeAndre Yedlin would be available to start after he went down with an ankle injury while playing with the U.S. national team against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Spain. But he recovered and was in the starting back line, along with Christopher McVey, Amika Mabika and Damion Lowe, back after playing for Jamaica against Argentina.
Captain Gregore got a yellow card in the 41st minute and will miss Wednesday’s game for yellow card accumulation. The Brazilian midfielder leads MLS with 12 yellows this season.
Neville pleaded with Inter Miami fans to fill DRV PNK Stadium Wednesday night for the Orlando City game.
“This team deserves a full house, so I hope the fans show up and make it a hostile environment,” he said.