Inter Miami coach Phil Neville leaves Higuain home, disputes ref after 1-0 loss at D.C.

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Inter Miami coach Phil Neville made a bold statement before Saturday night’s 1-0 road loss to D.C. United, leaving his highest-paid player, forward Gonzalo Higuain, back in South Florida to improve his fitness level.

Neville also delivered a strong message after the game, criticizing referee Fotis Bazakos for ejecting two Miami players on controversial red cards and for a questionable hand ball call that led to D.C.’s game-winning penalty kick by Ola Kamara in the 72nd minute.

“I’ve got to be really careful here, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what I saw on that football field in terms of some of the decisions, two sendings off that weren’t sendings off, a penalty that wasn’t a penalty,” Neville said.

The coach went on to say it appears to be a pattern, that Inter Miami gets unfair treatment from officials.

“It’s not the first time, Atlanta, Nashville, so, I suppose this is just normal, and that’s a disappointment,” Neville said. “What I said to the players is that we’ve got to use everything that’s thrown at us as a football club and as a set of players on the field on four or five occasions this season as part of our motivation to do well, to prove people wrong.”

He said he tries to be positive about referees, that they are only human, but “some of the things I am seeing are a major, major, major worry for this league and my players have suffered because they gave everything, their attitudes were fantastic, and they are really, really angry, frustrated, fuming, all those superlatives you want to use about what they thought was a major injustice.”

Miami midfielder Gregore was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th minute for a challenge on Kevin Paredes. Defender Ryan Shawcross was slapped with a straight red in the 84th minute for wrapping his arm around the neck of Joseph Mora, leaving Miami with nine men. Both will have to miss Friday’s home game against Orlando City.

Neville said they will appeal Shawcross’ card and hope to have it overturned.

The hand ball was called on Miami defender Christian Makoun following a D.C. United free kick. Makoun was leaping in the box and his back was to the ball when it ricocheted off his arm as it sailed out of bounds.

“Yes, we have to keep our discipline, that is part and parcel in football, but I can’t say anything about my players’ discipline (Saturday) because under the most extreme – something I’ve never seen on a football field in all my career – they were really disciplined. They could have and probably had every right to do things that were causing their frustrations, but they kept fighting to the end. I only applaud them for that.”

Miami defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez agreed that the penalties were too harsh.

“I don’t want to talk too much about the referee, but I think he was terrible,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “In Makoun’s penalty he was not watching the ball and was doing the natural movement, trying to jump, going back, and for me it’s no penalty. Same in red card for Gregore. It’s frustrating but we have to change the page and go forward.”

It was Inter Miami’s third loss in a row and the third straight match the team was held scoreless. Their record dropped to 2-5-2.

It was the second year in a row the team had bad luck with officials at Audi Field. Last season, Miami had a goal called back and a player sent off in a close loss to D.C. United.

Despite the result, Neville was pleased with his team’s grit, commitment and cohesion. Neville was gutted by Miami’s 3-0 home loss to D.C. three weeks ago and vowed to make changes before the teams met again Saturday night at Audi Field.

He stressed he was looking for players who were the most committed, most fit, and most competitive.

Higuain has not been in peak form all season, and Neville finally decided to send him and others a message by dropping the Argentine star from the game roster.

“The decision with Gonzalo was an easy one,” Neville said. “We’ve been working hard as a team the last three weeks. He’s missed quite a few days, so we just wanted to make sure he got back to absolutely 100 percent fitness. He’s happy with that decision. We talked, so there’s no problems. It’s not a big thing. He just wants to make sure when he plays next he’s at 100 percent fitness and confidence.”

On Saturday Neville opted to start young Argentine Julian Carranza at center forward, flanked by veteran American Brek Shea and Scotsman Lewis Morgan with Canadian Jay Chapman as an attacking center midfielder. Injured playmaker Rodolfo Pizarro (hip/abductor) and forward Robbie Robinson (hamstring) did not make the trip.

D.C. dominated the early minutes on Saturday, possessing the ball and pressuring Miami’s defense with a few dangerous scoring chances by Kamara. Miami players settled in as the half wore on, and the game remained scoreless at halftime.

Miami’s best scoring chance came in the 46th minute, when Shea had a 1v1 opportunity but was denied by D.C. keeper Bill Hamid, who made the save.

“Until the red card, the game was 0-0,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “We tried to keep fighting, but we are proud of ourselves. We came into the locker room and looked at each other in our faces, heads up. We fight with 10 men. We fight with nine men. We have to look at the glass half-full, not half-empty. We have 25 more games, so we must stay calm.”

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