Inter Miami playing for playoff spot and ‘dignity’ in road game at Columbus on Saturday

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A playoff berth, which seemed a realistic goal for Inter Miami just a few weeks ago, is looking far less attainable after a five-game losing streak.

But it is still mathematically possible, which is the message coach Phil Neville and his staff have been drilling into the players’ heads all week heading into the road game Saturday against the Columbus Crew (6 p.m., My33, CW34).

“It just takes one result to flip, and this team is streaky,” Neville said. “This team can get five wins on the bounce — we’ve seen it, we’ve done it. So, this team can flip it. I do feel we were close to that flip last two or three games. So, we’ve got to keep believing.”

Miami is in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, eight points shy of the final playoff spot with six games to go. The Crew is just ahead, in 10th place, six points from the playoff line.

The last time the teams played, in Fort Lauderdale in mid-September, Miami won 1-0 on a goal by Gonzalo Higuain. Columbus, the defending MLS Cup champion, had two excellent scoring chances which were saved by Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman.

“Twelve months ago or less they won a championship, they were the best team in the whole East and the West conference, with a championship-winning coach who’s won it before with another club, so we’re not underestimating the size of the task,” Neville said.

Miami is coming off a trio of 1-0 road losses, each involving controversial referee decisions, and those close defeats took their toll on the team. Neville was so frustrated after last weekend’s 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls that he lashed out at MLS officiating, a rant which resulted in a fine. He apologized on Thursday.

“The players suffered a lot on Saturday, mentally it hurt them a lot because they knew the size of the game in terms of where we wanted to get to,” Neville said. “We’ve had to work really hard on the mental side to keep it positive and making them believe there is still a chance. That’s my job until it’s mathematically not possible.”

Marsman said at this point, the team is playing not only for a postseason berth but for pride.

“It’s about our dignity,” the goalkeeper said. “If we make it to the playoffs or not, we have to finish the season strong for ourselves. The mood is ok (in the locker room). Of course, there is irritation and frustration, that’s normal after you have a streak like this. But we have to find a way to win, whether it’s beautiful or not. We didn’t do that the last five games. Before that we had a good streak, so what happened? That’s what we’re asking ourselves.”

Miami’s lack of scoring has been a recurring theme dating to last season. Thus far, this team has produced fewer goals. The 2020 team finished with 25 goals in 23 games. This season, Miami has the league’s fewest goals with 25 in 28 games. Higuain leads with 10, followed by Robbie Robinson (4) and Rodolfo Pizarro (3).

“The number of chances this team created, the number of goals people have scored, number of assists, has been very minimal over the last two years and something has to change,” Neville said. “Personnel, players, style, tactics. We looked at the lists of assists and goals and it’s nowhere near the level it should be. Over next five or six games those stats need to improve because those players are playing for their future.”

Neville said Higuain needs support up front, and he also challenged players to be more aggressive on corner kicks and free kicks.

“We can’t have one man carrying this whole football club, that’s a big ask even by someone like Gonzalo Higuain,” Neville said. “I look at the players around him and I think, `Who’s going to give us the best opportunity to score goals?’ Robbie is the player that provides and got us the best opportunities against Atlanta, Portland, Red Bulls. We need goals.

“Defenders get paid to defend, and that’s why they get paid less because attackers are paid to produce special moments, the moments you can’t teach. Ultimately, our attacking players have not produced those moments.”

Miami will be missing key players on Saturday, as it has the past several games. Nico Figal (calf) and Kieran Gibbs (hamstring) are out. Brek Shea has a back strain, missed practice the past few days and is questionable. Victor Ulloa returned to full training Thursday, but his status for the game is unknown. Defender Christian Makoun is making his way back from Venezuela’s World Cup qualifier at Chile Thursday night and will be a game-day decision.

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