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Six years of uncertainty, twists and turns, and political battles took a backseat on Sunday as Inter Miami made its much-anticipated Major League Soccer debut at sold-out Banc of California Stadium against powerhouse Los Angeles FC.
With co-owners David Beckham, Jorge and Jose Mas, and Marcelo Claure looking on proudly from suites, and 300 boisterous pink-and-black-clad Miami fans chanting from Section 217, Miami had an impressive curtain-raising considering the team has trained together for just six weeks and has two key roster spots left to fill.
But L.A. proved too strong for the expansion Miami team and won the match 1-0 on a goal by Mexican national team star Carlos Vela, last year’s MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner with 34 goals in 34 games. Vela, celebrating his 31st birthday, slipped behind the Miami defense and chipped in a high arching shot in the 44th minute, giving the home team momentum heading into intermission.
Vela’s goal came after Miami’s best 10 minutes of play, as Matias Pellegrini and Nico Figal forced L.A. goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer to make two tough saves. Vermeer was named Man of the Match, which Miami players viewed as an indication of how well they played.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said there were “more moments than I can remember” that he wondered whether the Miami team would materialize.
“That was a project that took a long time to get over the finish line, but it really speaks to the strength and commitment of that ownership group, David’s passion and stick-tuitiveness, Jorge and Jose Mas and Marcelo’s engagement in the community,” Garber said. “I’m proud of them. And they’re playing great.”
Mas got teary-eyed after emerging from the post-game locker room, where Beckham addressed the team. He said when he saw “Inter Miami” on the scoreboard for the first time, surrounded by his mother, brother, wife and children, his mind turned to his late-father, to whom he has dedicated this franchise.
“This was an amazing day for our city, our franchise finally got its beginning on a great stage, a lot of buzz, eyes of the world on our team,” Mas said. “I’m very proud of how they played, they battled, had chances. A tie would have been a fair result. I ran the gamut of emotions. You think about life. I thought about my late-father a lot. I went into this full-steam two years ago, people doubted us, and now it’s real.”
Inter Miami goalkeeper and team captain Luis Robles had a big game, making four big first-half saves and numerous other heads-up plays. Newly signed Mexican national team midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro showed why Miami paid Monterrey a $12 million transfer fee to get him, demonstrating creativity and vision throughout the game.
“Pizarro is an excellent player, very clever,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said before the game. “His eye for passes, his way of moving with the ball, finding the right moment to release a player or to find a way in for a shot are all really good. Very smart. I think Miami has put together a good roster. They have a nucleus of good players and a few special ones, so that’s a credit to them.”
Pizarro said he was encouraged by Inter Miami’s performance against the league’s most prolific team, and promised that he and his teammates will “bring a lot of joy” to Inter Miami fans with continued work.
The Miami team lacks the star power team owners initially promised, but the mix of tested MLS veterans and young Latin American talent proved it can compete in this league. Inter Miami played the possession style coach Diego Alonso promised, and the team had a few legitimate scoring chances, but was unable to finish and had a few defensive breakdowns.
“It was a great game, we played with a lot of heart against an excellent team, and I loved what I saw,” Alonso said. “We had a few clear chances. We have improving to do, but if we keep playing with this heart and intensity, we will do great things this season.”
Robles agreed: “We played well enough to earn a point. For our first game, you can tell we’re a work in progress, but there’s a lot of encouraging things and that’s why this group is so optimistic. It was a good team performance, a good place to start with a very, very high ceiling. We have a lot of heart and fight, and that’s going to be required to make it through this season.”
The franchise’s historic first starting 11: Luis Robles (GK); Alvas Powell (D); Roman Torres (D); Nico Figal (D); Ben Sweat (D); Rodolfo Pizarro (MF); Wil Trapp (MF); Victor Ulloa (MF); Matias Pellegrini (MF); Lewis Morgan (MF); and Robbie Robinson (F). Midfielders Lee Nguyen and Christian Makoun came in off the bench midway through the second half, replacing Ulloa and Pellegrini.
More than 300 members of Inter Miami supporters’ groups invaded the 22,000-seat stadium, and though they were outnumbered by the passionate “3252” LAFC fans who occupy the north end of the stands, their Spanish chants and drum banging could be heard.
“This is the best feeling in the world, an amazing moment,” said Miami fan Ed Serrano, one of the founders of the Southern Legion supporters’ group. “For almost 20 years we bugged the league to give us a team, sending emails every single day, and now here we are. It really happened. This is a day so many of us have been waiting for a long time.”