Red-hot Toronto FC, with new Italian imports, poses big test for Inter Miami Saturday

·4 min read
MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

Back in mid-July, a home game against Toronto FC would have been a welcome matchup for any team in Major League Soccer. Toronto was floundering near the bottom of the standings as first-year coach Bob Bradley implemented his system.

But this weekend, Toronto is a team nobody wants to face. Just ask Inter Miami coaches and players, who go up against Bradley’s red-hot team on Saturday at DRV PNK Stadium (8 p.m., My33) in a pivotal game as the tightly contested playoff race heats up.

Toronto is undefeated at 3-0-2 since the addition of Italian national team imports Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. Insigne came from Serie A club Napoli and Bernardeschi from Juventus, where he was a teammate of Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain. A third Italian player, defender Domenico Criscito, signed with Toronto in late-June.

The Italian trio has scored six of Toronto’s last seven goals and the team has outscored opponents 13-6 since the addition of Insigne and Bernardeschi. Michael Bradley, the coach’s son and team captain, played in Italy, speaks Italian and has helped integrate the new players.

“They’re dangerous, they’ve got some world-class players, so we have to be really alert all the time,” said Miami winger Robert Taylor. “I think the two Italians are the main threats, so we have to make sure when we have the ball that we know where they are at all times and try to finish all the attacks we can get and also keep control of the ball.”

Toronto traded Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo to Inter Miami to make room for the Italians. Pozuelo, known for his vision and pinpoint passes, has made a big impact on the Miami attack, particularly on Higuain, who has scored six goals in the past seven games.

Pozuelo will be highly motivated to defeat his former team and widen the gap for Miami in the playoff race.

With eight games remaining in the regular season, Miami (9-10-6) sits in eighth place at 33 points in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Orlando, which holds the seventh and final playoff spot. Orlando owns the tiebreaker over Miami having won their lone meeting this season.

Toronto is in 11th place, trailing Miami by just three points.

Inter Miami coach Phil Neville was gone all week in England finalizing paperwork for his green card. He was on a flight back to South Florida on Friday afternoon and will be on the sideline Saturday. Assistant Jason Kreis took charge in Neville’s absence.

Asked how often Neville was in touch, Kreis smiled and said: “Every hour. He’s not one for undercommunicating, so he’s been on top of everything, watching the training sessions. For me, it’s no different than if he was here, except we have one less voice out on the pitch.”

Kreis, with a long history in MLS and coaching the U.S. Under-23 team, is quite familiar with Bradley, the former U.S. national team coach. He knows the challenges Bradleys’ possession-based style presents.

“It’s an interesting situation that you can have a team that’s one way for the first half of the season and then turns into a completely different team for the second half,” Kreis said of Toronto. “If you judge their games over the last four or five, they’re one of the best in the league. Top, top signings. Really, really dangerous opponent. But we think we’re ready. We combat that with a group that’s really together, with our home form, and we know we’re in a good spot.”

Both teams are on a good run of form. Miami, which won all three games against Toronto last season, is on a four-game unbeaten run and has lost just one of the past 10 home games.

“I think they’ve played well of late,” Bradley said of Inter Miami. “Higuain’s fitter, looks sharper and more committed. Ale [Pozuelo] is still a player, you can see he already has a good understanding with Higuain and Ale still has the ability to be a little bit free in the way he moves around, his ability to play a good pass or get in position to finish. That’s something you always have to be aware of.”

Tickets for Saturday’s game are available two for the price of one (up to 20) in the East, North and South stands. A ticket starting at $29 can be purchased for $14.50 when purchased in pairs of twos. Visit intermiamicf.com for more information.