Late PK by Makoun lifts Inter Miami to playoff position with 1-0 road win over Toronto

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Inter Miami, one of the hottest teams in MLS the past six weeks, continued its push to the playoffs with a wild 1-0 road win over Toronto FC.

The victory pushed Miami up four spots, above the playoff line, into fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 32 points and 11 games left to play. The top seven make the playoffs.

The winning goal came in the fifth minute of stoppage time on an unusual-looking penalty kick by an unlikely hero, defender Christian Makoun. The young Venezuelan, who was taken down in the box by Chris Mavinga, stepped to the spot with confidence, ran a few steps, took a giant hop and then slotted the ball in with his left foot.

“We won because of the courage of a player who keeps growing and getting better and better and that’s Christian Makoun,” said Inter Miami coach Phil Neville. “The way he went forward to win the penalty and the courage to stand up and take the penalty was sensational. He’ll reach the top with confidence and bravery and the way he took the penalty was first-class.”

It was Makoun’s first MLS goal and he said he was delighted to earn three points for his teammates.

“When I saw the opportunity to take a penalty kick, I knew I wanted it,” Makoun said. “I have practiced them a long time. I know it’s strange to see a defender take it, but my teammates had confidence in me. The way I took it was complicated for the keeper but easy for me.”

Toronto FC coach Javier Perez threw down his clipboard in frustration, and who could blame him?

Last place Toronto, playing a man down after a 37th minute ejection, held Miami scoreless for 94 minutes and had a few bad breaks along the way. They had a first half penalty kick and Miami red card nullified by a VAR offside ruling, and an apparent 87th-minute goal cleared at the line by Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman.

Toronto fans thought the ball crossed the line before Marsman’s clearance. Replays were inconclusive.

It was that kind of night.

Neville, who left leading scorer Gonzalo Higuain home to rest, admitted his team was “probably a bit lucky” to escape with a win. “We’ll take the three points, but we need to play better.”

Miami, which has seven wins and three ties in its past 11 games, had been unable to score on a team that has given up a league-high 49 goals this season. Despite its impressive run over the past month and a half, Miami’s scoring has dried up of late with just three goals in the past four games – one of them a 90th-minute winner by Brek Shea on the road against Cincinnati and another Makoun’s magical PK.

But the defense continues to deliver. It was Miami’s fourth shutout in a row.

“Clean sheets win you leagues,” Neville said. “We did not play well at all, and I was angry, but the pride in which they keep going until the end, keep fighting, battling, finding a way to win. I don’t think there are too many teams in the whole of the MLS that have scored as many goals late as we have. We’re keeping our feet firmly on the ground. I know we can play better and raise the standards.”

Argentine forward Higuain did not make the trip. Neville said it was a planned rest day because Higuain had a slight back strain after scoring the lone goal against Columbus on Saturday and did not train Sunday. Miami is in the midst of a three-game week, and Neville said he is managing players carefully to keep them fresh.

“I knew this would be a real tough week, making sure we have real freshness on Friday (vs. New York Red Bulls) is massively important but also to utilize our full squad,” Neville said. “I’m a coach that likes to rotate, to give opportunities to those that have been fighting so hard. Jay Chapman has been one of our hardest training players and every time I see his face when the team’s announced it’s a face of someone that deserves an opportunity.”

The coach said he and his staff looked at the roster and decided which players could go three games and which needed some rest. Blaise Matuidi was on the bench most of the Toronto game, coming on just for a few minutes at the end. Neville felt the long plane ride to and from Toronto would not be in Higuain’s best interest.

But Higuain’s finishing touch and ball skills were missed.

Midfielder Victor Ulloa also stayed home with a quad injury. Brek Shea and Blaise Matuidi, who started Saturday’s 1-0 win over Columbus, began the game on the bench. Kelvin Leerdam started for Shea and former Toronto player Jay Chapman started for Matuidi.

Miami started off sloppy against last-place Toronto, which a few weeks ago lost 3-1 to Miami at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

Toronto created a few early scoring chances and Miami suffered a big scare when the home team was awarded a penalty kick in the 16th minute and Inter Miami captain Gregore was slapped with a red card. But video assisted replay ruled that Toronto was offside, negating both the red card and the PK.

Miami finally settled down and had slick passing sequences in the final third – an area the team was trying to improve – but was unable to find the back of the net. Lewis Morgan shot wide right, Indiana Vassilev went high on one shot and directly to goalkeeper Alex Bono on another, and Robbie Robinson also launched a point-blank shot directly at the keeper.

Toronto player Kemar Lawrence was sent off with a red card in the 37th minute after dragging down a streaking Robinson near the top of the box.

Despite the man advantage for the final eight minutes of the half, the score remained 0-0 at intermission in the sparsely attended game. Toronto controlled possession in the first half, 60 percent to 40 percent. Miami took six first-half shots while Toronto took four.

Hoping to energize its offense and capitalize on the man advantage, Midfielder Federico Higuain, known for his field vision and creative passing, came on in the 54th minute for Vassilev. Shea entered the game at the same time for Leerdam, which allowed Morgan to move back to his regular right-wing position.

Toronto’s Venezuelan midfielder Yefferson Soteldo, at 5-2 the smallest man on the field, gave the Miami defense fits all night.

Miami returns home Friday night against the New York Red Bulls.

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