It was late July, Inter Miami had just been humiliated 5-0 at home by the New England Revolution, its sixth loss in a row, and a smattering of boos reached a crescendo as coach Phil Neville and his dejected players trudged off the field.
During the post-match handshake, Revolution coach Bruce Arena told Neville to dig in, stick to his plan and things would turn around.
He was correct.
Since that night, Miami has gone from the worst record in the league to the cusp of the seventh-place playoff line in the Eastern Conference. Miami has seven wins, three ties and two losses during the stretch, including a 4-0 loss at home Friday night to the New York Red Bulls, a result that reminded the team that it still has plenty of work to do with 10 games remaining.
Miami returns home Wednesday to face second place Nashville SC and will be without key defenders Nico Figal and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, both serving suspensions for yellow card accumulation. Figal is being pursued by Mexican club Tigres, and if he were to leave it would be a big blow.
Six of Miami’s final 10 games are on the road, including against fourth-place Atlanta, fifth place New York City FC and league-leader New England.
The team has found different ways to win, sometimes pretty, sometimes with stoppage-time heroics.
“After that New England game, I told the players `All our futures are on the line,’” Neville said. “I also told them there was no way we were going to finish this season and not be a success. I didn’t join Inter Miami and bring my family here, all the way from England, to fail. Personally, that was my biggest motivation. We said as a group there was only one way we would succeed and that was to come together and not be a team of individuals.”
The biggest key to the turnaround has been team bonding. A new ping-pong table and team lunches have helped.
“We had a brilliant set of individual players who weren’t playing as a team,” Neville said. “Now we have a set of players that are playing as a team and becoming a brilliant football team. When I came to this football club, I knew I was joining a club with some brilliant players, but all the rumors, gossip and people around the club told me we were a team that played as individuals. It took six months of heartache to get to the point where now all of a sudden the penny has dropped from the players that without each other we can’t win games, Golden Boots, Man of the Match, or earn a contract for next season.”
Midfielder Jay Chapman noted that whenever the team faced adversity in a game, some players would shut down and not help each other.
“I think you’re seeing a team now that has really fallen in love with winning and that’s a really powerful thing,” Chapman said. “You can see it in the locker room. Guys from different backgrounds are communicating more, there’s more laughter, camaraderie. We’re a long way from where we need to be, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin has been watching Miami’s ascent from afar.
“In pro sports it’s real easy to just scrap things, change and go in a different direction,” he said. “I tend to believe in having belief in your coach and your players. Miami’s turnaround is an example of what can happen if you show belief and stick to your principles.
“Over the course of a 34-game season, the truth tends to come out and they’re as good as anybody in the league right now. It can be hard in those moments when you have a couple consecutive losses and doubt creeps in and people start to go off in twos and threes in different parts of the club, whether it’s players or staff. I’ve experienced that and it takes a strong leader to get through that. Full credit to Coach Neville and what he’s done there. I wish them the best of luck unless we play them in the playoffs.”