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Not even a six-game losing streak or a 5-0 mid-week thumping were enough to make the Inter Miami fans lose faith in their team. They showed up spirited as ever for Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia Union and were rewarded with the team’s best effort in recent months and a 1-1 tie against one of the league’s best teams.
Robbie Robinson, racing up from the left side, took a perfect through pass from Gonzalo Higuain and fired a shot to the far post to give Miami the lead in the 71st minute.
DRV PNK Stadium erupted as a smiling Robinson was engulfed by his teammates. It was Miami’s second goal in 611 minutes, and you could almost see the weight slide off the players’ shoulders.
Philadelphia tied it 14 minutes later on a close-range shot by Kacper Przybylko. Although the 14,057 home fans would have preferred a victory, they seemed satisfied with the result.
“La Familia Nunca Abandona” (The Family Never Abandons) read one giant banner in the north supporters stands. “Win or Lose, We Will Be Here with You!” read another. Team co-owner David Beckham, sporting bleached blond hair, was in the stands for the first time since May 9.
Coach Phil Neville, facing heat for his team’s last-place standing, vowed to make lineup changes and select his 11 starters based on their commitment and work rate. He sat co-captain Blaise Matuidi, who left the stadium at halftime of Wednesday’s loss to New England after being benched, according to two sources. Matuidi remained on the bench the entire game Sunday.
Although his team didn’t get the win, Neville was pleased with the players’ collective effort.
“I am massively proud of the players, and I thought they deserved a victory...their attitude, commitment and desire, everything you want to see in a team they gave to the football club,” said Neville. “It’s been a real, real tough two or three days for the whole group. I saw the hurt in the players’ eyes, that gave me great confidence that it was hurting them. We asked them for a performance, and they did that against an outstanding team.
“It’s baby steps, a foundation to start building from, but it’s just a start. We didn’t get our just rewards, but we will if we keep showing that kind of mentality. That’s all I asked and I was massively proud. We all took some criticism, rightly so, but tonight they deserve praise, every single one of them.”
Sunday’s starting lineup included midfielder Federico Higuain, who seemed to energize his younger brother, Gonzalo, and first-time starter Kieran Gibbs, a left back who joined the team two weeks ago from English club West Brom.
Seeking leadership in a locker room that was lacking confidence, Neville turned to Brazilian midfielder Gregore, who wore the captain’s armband instead of the team’s four designated captains – Higuain, Matuidi, Victor Ulloa and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
Neville announced after the game that Gregore will remain the sole captain for the rest of the season, as having four captains was not working and created uncertainty with who was leading. He said it was “not a slant” on the other four players, but he feels Gregore’s qualities make him “the perfect captain for the next three, four, five years.
“Gregore is an extension of me on the field, the way I want our football team to play,” Neville said. “His passion, his quality, the way he speaks to people, his commitment to wanting everybody to do well. He was outstanding (Sunday) as was Victor Ulloa next to him. Leandro Pirez also had his best game of the season.”
The entire midfield stepped up, Neville said.
“Federico was the cherry on the top on that little cake that was midfield,” he said. “Two center backs were outstanding, the two central midfield players, plus Fede. We had the spine of the team. I’ve been unbelievably pleased with Victor Ulloa. Even the games we have not been successful, I’ve been massively impressed with him, his attitude and commitment to the team. He and Gregore were really good together. We need those brotherhoods.”
Gregore, who was captain at Brazilian club Bahia, was humbled to be named captain.
“We have a lot of good players here, other leaders are also very good and we are all working hard to change the image of the team,” Gregore said. “Phil and I spoke a lot and he asked me if I was ready to assume this leadership role and I am. The players have confidence in me. It’s a very important responsibility. I am grateful.
“The fans have been doing their part. Now it’s up to us to do our part.”
Neville was encouraged by what he saw from Robinson, the 2020 MLS No. 1 draft pick, who missed seven recent games with a hamstring injury.
“Robbie is going to be a really special player, I’ve said that from Day One,” Neville said. “We have to keep him on the same course we have the past nine weeks, acting, behaving, training like a real tough athlete and if he does that for the rest of his career he will go right to the very top. He knows his value to me and the team.”
Robinson was happy and relieved to get the goal for Miami.
“It felt great and is even better that I’m able to come off the field healthy,” Robinson said. “It’s been a long journey, happy to be back and contributing to the team and we have good times ahead. We were able to keep the ball and not give away dumb fouls around the box. We deserved the win, but we’ll learn from this and hopefully get three points next game.”
Inter Miami was desperate to end the losing streak and find the back of the net, and showed it, as the team dominated possession over the talented Philadelphia team. Miami took 15 shots, six on frame, compared to 11 for the Union.
Miami moved the ball well from the opening whistle, passed with precision and – most important – sprinted back on defense and showed grit and spirit that had been missing in recent weeks.
Neville pleaded with his players to trust each other, commit to each other, and play as a team. They seemed to take his message to heart. The team looked upbeat from the start, cheering on each other and making it a point to clap toward the stands to thank the fans for their support.
“I saw a group of players that were prepared to commit to each other, to fight for each other and fight for the Inter Miami badge,” he said. “I asked for a group of players who could walk up to the supporters after the game and be proud and they did that. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. We have a long road ahead of us.”
Late-game substitutions included Jay Chapman for Federico Higuain, newly-signed Indiana Vassilev for Robinson, Julian Carranza for Gonzalo Higuain, Kelvin Leerdam for Lewis Morgan, and Brek Shea for Gibbs.
Midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro missed the game, as he is with the Mexican national team playing in the Gold Cup.
Neville said he appreciated Beckham’s presence and was encouraged by the support he felt this week despite the team’s struggles.
“His presence is vital, and it shows we’re all in it together,” Neville said. “What I felt since the defeat on Wednesday is a collective togetherness that even surprised me in terms of the ownership group and players and staff...Never once have they doubted me or my staff or anything we’re doing.”
The evening, “Futbol Salutes Military Appreciation Night” began with a poignant homecoming for U.S. Army specialist Anthony Herrera of Miami, who surprised his family and showed up at the stadium – his first time home since being deployed to Germany two and a half years ago. His family, season ticket holders, were invited to the field to receive an award, Herrera delivered a message to them on the video screen and then he came running through the tunnel in an Inter Miami jersey.
“It was an amazing moment,” said Herrera, who got to meet Beckham. “When I heard the team was going to salute the military tonight I wrote to the them and said my family goes to the games and wondered if we could surprise them and they made it happen.”
Herrera’s father, Humberto, was in tears as he hugged his son on the field. “I had no idea, was completely surprised,” he said. “I will never forget this night.”