Pozuelo scores twice to lead Inter Miami to 3-2 win over NYCFC and into playoff zone

Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo arrived at Inter Miami from Toronto FC last month with two objectives: help Miami reach the MLS playoffs and earn a contract for next season.

He took a big step toward both on Saturday night.

Pozuelo scored two goals, including the late game-winner, in a 3-2 home upset over second-place New York City FC, a team Miami had never beaten in its five previous tries. It was his ninth goal against NYCFC since 2019.

He ripped his shirt off and roared after the second goal, which came in the 84th minute. He was swarmed by his jubilant teammates as pink smoke bombs went off in the north stands of DRV PNK Stadium.

The win pushed Miami over the playoff line to seventh place in the Eastern Conference with nine games to go.

“We had a team that was committed to win and Pozuelo is a game-changer for us, a player who makes us play better, creates things, who was the best player on the pitch,” said Miami coach Phil Neville. “He challenges and wants the best from everyone. He doesn’t accept bad passes from anyone. I feel that’s what the team needed, those demands.”

Neville added that he and Inter Miami sporting director Chris Henderson pushed to sign Pozuelo because he did not demand a big or long contract. “He said, `Give me these three, four months and you’ll give me a contract at the end of it, don’t worry about that. I back myself.’ That showed everything we wanted. We want hungry players.”

After struggling to score for much of the season, Inter Miami has scored 10 goals in the past four games. Pozuelo’s vision and creativity are a big reason. Also, Neville said he “took the shackles off” his players and gave them the freedom to attack in numbers.

“We’ve got attackers that want to do their stuff. There’s got to be a balance, but I feel as if we’re at a stage of the season where my experience in my playing career was that you’ve got to go for it, not leave anything on the field. We’re going to have a long off-season to rest and go to the beach. Now is the time to leave everything on the field.”

Neville said it’s “twitchy bum time,” a phrase coined by legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson to describe the tensest time of a game or season. The teams that best handle that pressure will succeed, Neville said.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he added. “If it were a running race, an 800-meter race, we still have two laps to go on the track.”

Miami, which lost 2-0 to New York a few weeks ago on Yankee Stadium’s tiny field, was happy to be back home with more room to work and dominated possession most of the first half.

Winger Robert Taylor had a good chance to give Miami a lead in the 10th minute, but his shot from outside the box was saved by Sean Johnson, the first of many big saves for the New York goalkeeper.

New York struck first in the 34th minute on a well-played set piece. Maxi Moralez lifted his free kick toward the back post, Maxime Chanot got his head on it and passed it back to Talles Magno, who put it in on a left footed shot off the far post.

Miami equalized five minutes later. Bryce Duke sent a pass between two defenders to Pozuelo, who curled it past Johnson. It was Pozuelo’s first goal in an Inter Miami uniform.

The first half ended with a livid Neville and loud boos from the crowd as NYCFC took a 2-1 lead on a questionable goal moments before whistle in the second minute of extra time, after the referee indicated there would be just one minute of added time. The ball bounced around a scrum in front of the goal before Thiago Andrade right footed it in from the center of the box to the top right corner.

Neville screamed at the fourth official as Miami assistant coaches pointed to their wristwatches, insisting the half should have ended before the goal, but the goal stood.

“It shouldn’t have been a goal,” Neville said. “I was told there was 20 seconds left and there was two minutes, 52 seconds played after that. It was almost like when you played at school, `Let’s play until we score.’ My anger at halftime was that I felt it was unjust and unacceptable. We had to stabilize them at halftime…It was about patience. I felt we were too gung-ho in the first half, and we played with more patience in the second half.”

Ariel Lassiter, who came in as a sub in the 56th minute, tied the game seven minutes later after Gonzalo Higuain flicked him a pass from close range.

Pozuelo clinched the victory after intercepting a bad pass from a New York defender and cranking it past Johnson.

“I’m very happy, we needed the three points, knew the importance of this game in the race to the playoffs,” Pozuelo said. “I think we played well, had lots of chances against one of the best teams in MLS. We played them toe-to-toe and I’m happy personally with the goals.”

Pozuelo has high hopes for this team.

“Since I got here, I knew we had very good players, and now the team dynamic is very good,” he said. “We all get along great, and it shows on the field. We never give up. We’re used to the heat and humidity here, and we have to use that to our advantage.”

The crowd included U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who was scouting DeAndre Yedlin in the runup to the World Cup. Yedlin was Inter Miami’s lone representative at the MLS All-Star Game last Wednesday and did not seem tired despite traveling 11,000 miles last week from Miami to San Jose to Montreal to Miami to Minneapolis and back.

Yedlin was all over the field, racing up and down the right sideline and sprinting right to left to cover on defense when New York found open space there. He went down with an apparent ankle injury just before Lassiter’s goal, was limping badly, but stayed in until the final whistle.

Brek Shea returned to the active roster after leg injuries that sidelined him most of the season. Coco Jean (groin) and Leo Campana (thigh) were not available. Campana was expected to miss four to six weeks, but Neville said he is recovering faster than expected. “Leo is really close, and Coco will be back next week.”

Neville is leaving for England on Sunday and will spend a few days there finalizing his green card. “Next time you see me, I’ll be an American,” he said, smiling.

Miami’s next game is at home Saturday against Toronto.