The most pressing question for Inter Miami on Wednesday night was how the team would handle the absence of its two most tenacious defenders, Nico Figal and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, both suspended for the home game against Nashville SC.
Answer: Not well. Not well at all.
Inter Miami’s defense, which coach Phil Neville called “a brick wall” after four straight shutouts a few weeks ago, looked shaky from the opening minutes and it resulted in a 5-1 loss.
Miami has been outscored 9-1 over the past two home games, a big setback after an impressive 11-game run that got the team into the playoff conversation.
Instead of gaining much-needed points in the playoff race, Miami will remain in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two spots shy of the playoff line with nine games remaining.
To make matters worse, Figal will also miss the road game at Atlanta next Wednesday, and captain Gregore, who was slapped with two yellows against Nashville, will miss the next two games. Gregore and Gonzalez Pirez are tied for the league lead with 11 yellow cards apiece.
Neville had said he hoped Friday’s loss was “just a bump in the road” and that his team would bounce back against Nashville. Instead, the road block got bigger.
“Gutted,” Neville said after the match. “Five goals. Five individual errors. Four goals on Friday. Four individual errors. Nothing to do with tactics or systems. It’s about players taking accountability. Making silly mistakes. No excuses. Can’t say, `Oh, we don’t have Nico, don’t have LGP.’ That is the worst excuse. We had players on that field well capable of defending those five goals really well.
“We’re hiding behind excuses and not taking accountability for simple, basic fundamentals of defending and it’s unacceptable and I have to take full responsibility.”
Miami beat Nashville 2-1 at home when the teams met Aug. 8, on an equalizer by Higuain and a stoppage-time game winner by Indiana Vassilev. Higuain scored again on Wednesday on a nice 64th minute blast, but this time, the game did not have a happy ending for the home crowd of 13,033.
Nashville took the lead in the sixth minute, when Hany Mukhtar easily slipped behind Miami’s back line in front of the left corner of the goal, collected an Alistair Johnston cross from the right side and knocked it past goalkeeper Nick Marsman to the bottom left corner.
Nashville, the second-place team in the East, scored again in the 39th minute on a Walker Zimmerman header from close range. The play started with a corner kick. Marsman darted out to grab the crossing ball, tapped it out, and tried to chase it, but it dribbled out of reach and he found himself on the ground as Anibal Godoy floated the ball high to the middle of the box and Zimmerman outleaped five Miami defenders for the goal.
Miami trailed 2-0 at halftime. A wide open Mukhtar struck again to make it 3-0 early in the second half, and some boos rang down from the stands.
Lewis Morgan nearly scored for Miami but his rocket of a shot was pushed over the crossbar by Nashville keeper Joe Willis.
Higuain finally breathed some life into the offense and the crowd with his pinpoint shot from the top of the box to make it 3-1. Fans, who waved South and Central American flags to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Night, began chanting.
Higuain, whom Neville said he uses as “a yardstick for the team”, played well all night. He was so fired up after his goal that he grabbed the ball from the net and sprinted to midfield to resume the game, still holding out hope they could come back.
Neville hoped the rest of the players would respond as Higuain did. But they did not. They were slow to balls, let Nashville control the middle of the field, and left gaping holes in the back.
A Randall Leal goal six minutes later quieted the singing and Johnston scored in added time to make it 5-1.
“That last goal summed up my feelings in the game when simple ball down the line somebody wanted to get there before our player and then there was a run on the other side when someone wanted to score a goal more than our defender wanted to defend,” Neville said.
“We’ve got to make big decisions in the next game in terms of personnel and who wants to really defend and put their bodies on the line, block shots, head the ball and the ones that don’t will sit next to me on the bench We’ve got a little bit of softness in our defending because we want to play well with the football, we think we’re going to be a possession-based team and have lost that mentality of wanting to defend first.”
Midfielder Jay Chapman said the most important thing after a loss like that is to get back on the field. “We have to have a short memory. The past two games haven’t been good enough, giving up nine goals. We’re never going to win games if we’re doing that, so we have to look at ourselves in the mirror, get back out there and hone in on what’s gotten us results before.”
Neville said the next few games are vital in determining where the team is headed.
“It could go so good, or it could go so bad,” he said. “What we’ve seen with this team is that there’s no in between, and that’s my real disappointment as a coach. We thought we’d closed the gap. Today was our rebound game. We wanted to show our identity. But we reverted back. We dipped and dipped badly.”
FIFA World Cup Site Inspections
Miami’s bid to host 2026 World Cup matches will take a big step Thursday when a delegation of FIFA and U.S. Soccer officials comes to town for stadium and practice site visits and meetings with local organizers and politicians.
The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Seventeen U.S. cities are vying for as many as 11 host spots to join three cities in Mexico and two in Canada. FIFA hopes to name the host cities in early-to-mid 2022.
Miami is the ninth city on this tour. Others were Boston, Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Eight other cities have visits scheduled by the end of November.
Officials will visit Hard Rock Stadium, a venue built to FIFA specifications that has hosted many world-class soccer matches and is a leading candidate to host World Cup games. They also will inspect potential training sites, including Inter Miami’s practice facility and DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, the Dolphins’ training facility, Barry University and FIU. Officials will also tour potential sites for fan festivals.
The delegation includes FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani, who also is president of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football); FIFA chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith; officials of U.S. Soccer, Canada Soccer and the Mexico soccer federations.