Inter Miami have successfully completed their second full season in the MLS (not counting the “MLS is back tournament” in 2020) and despite making playoffs for the first time in only their second season the Inter Miami experiment can only be described as a massive failure.
Miami’s Football History
Despite Inter Miami’s brief history in the league, soccer is rooted in Miami. The first professional team came to Miami in 1973 as the Miami Gatos and changed their name a year later to the Miami Toros. Despite Miami’s success on the field, a lack of attendance forced the Miami Toros to move up interstate 95 to form the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers would show remarkable success in their early days. A consistently sold-out crowd forced their ground to expand to almost double its original capacity. However, the Strikers are most known for the talent they brought in, including German and Bayern Munich Legend Gerd Muller and Manchester United legend George Best. In 1977 the Strikers would win their first and only NASL title before being moved to Minnesota in 1983.
As the Strikers would attempt to make a return to Fort Lauderdale, the most important development to American soccer would be established in 1996, Major League Soccer. With the development of a new league, Miami would be awarded a team in 1997 known as the Miami Fusion. The Miami Fusion would gain initial success and even win the Supporter Shield (most points in a season) in 2001, but their success would be short-lived as Miami failed to attract an owner and was folded by the MLS in the same year.
Many in Miami were hostile towards the MLS because of how the league treated the city. At the height of the Miami Fusion’s success, the league shut them down and would not see its return for 19 years. However, soccer did not disappear from Miami. Instead, many people flocked back to the teams of their families from Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil including Boca Juniors, River Plate, and Flamengo.
Inter Miami’s Inception
David Beckham’s signing to the LA Galaxy in 2007 would change the league in many ways, but one of the least spoken about aspects of his signing was the clause in his contract allowing him to buy an expansion team into the league for $25 million. At the time this was supposed to be a discount for what the league believed an expansion team would cost, but instead paying only 17% of the actual price of a franchise. Nashville, who came into the league the same year as Miami paid $150 million to join.
In 2013, the MLS announced their desire to expand to Miami again. Beckham, Simon Fuller, and Marcelo Claure were identified as those willing to be involved. In 2014 Miami was denied an expansion bid because they lacked a solidified stadium plan. Progress would stall until 2018 when stadium plans for Miami Freedom Park would be announced, allowing Miami to become the 25th team in the MLS.
Inter Miami worked hard with the city and the fans after their announcement. They worked with supporters’ groups to form the culture they wanted specifically a very south American-esque style of support. Inter Miami would also involve themselves deeply in the Miami culture by promoting themselves through street art similar to styles that are seen in Wynwood, Miami’s art district.
Despite being burned by the MLS in the past, the involvement of many superstars in the Inter Miami business coalition and their smart integrated promotion got the fan base excited for the MLS to be back. This honeymoon period would be short-lived.
Inter Miami’s First Transfers
The lengthy process of getting approved as a team would only represent the beginning of their problems. Miami would begin their journey by signing two young Argentine attackers to represent the future of the club. Matias Pellegrini was signed to a Designated Player (DP) contract from Estudiantes in Argentina at 19 years old after playing only 15 professional games and scoring in 3 of them and assisting once as a left winger. Julian Carranza would also sign for Miami at 19 years old, but unlike Pellegrini, he would not be signed to a DP contract. Carranza played for Banfield, also in Argentina, scoring 10 times in 50 matches over the span of 3 years.
Miami’s first moves as an established club caused some skepticism amongst the growing fan base. Many in the US had never heard of these players and worried about the signing of a 19-year-old to a designated player contract, but many believed that these signings were excellent. These fans believed that Miami was simultaneously building a competitive roster as well as setting the foundations for the future with these two stars.
Inter Miami made many promises of big stars coming to Miami and their first DP signing failed to live up to the hype they were expecting. Inter Miami would make a couple more signings including Lewis Morgan from Celtic before announcing their second DP signing Rodolfo Pizzaro.
Another lackluster DP signing, but the Miami fans were excited for Pizzaro. Exceptional performances in Liga MX earned him a spot in the Mexican National Team and the fans expected the same level of performance since he would continue playing under the same coach that inter Miami had just signed, Diego Alonso.
Through the Superdraft and other transfers before their inaugural season, Miami would sign other big-name players. These signings included US youth international George Acosta, Ecuadorian international Christian Makoun, Nico Figa from Argentina, and many ex-US internationals including Lee Ngyuen, Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea, and Will Trapp. While these signings would excite the fan base early on, this strategy failed and only two years later, Brek Shea is the only player to remain at the club that I have listed.
The Inaugural Season and COVID-19
Inter Miami would start their first season with an available designated player spot that would prove to be necessary. Their season started with an extremely underwhelming 1-0 loss to David Beckham’s old team, the LA Galaxy. They would then lose their second match in a 2-1 away loss to D.C. United, with Designated Player Rodolfo Pizzaro scoring the first goal in the club’s history. The excitement would again be short-lived as the MLS shut down because of COVID-19.
The “MLS is Back Tournament” would be an omen for the beginning of their MLS career. Losing the 3 group stage matches including a 2-1 loss to local rivals Orlando City would see Miami eliminated from the tournament. Atlanta United was the only team that would also lose all three matches. While this was disheartening for many Miami fans, many blamed the pandemic and still believed that a major DP signing could change their fortunes.
Hope would be reignited in Miami fans in August of 2020 when they announced the signing of 2018 World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi who was out of contract with Juventus. Only a month later they would sign another Juventus player in a free transfer, legendary Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain.
As encouraging as these signings were for the fan base, many around the league became skeptical of Miami’s business. Matias Pellegrini and Rodolfo Pizzaro occupied two of the three designated player slots and Higuain was signed as the third. However, for a player of Matuidi’s stature, it was uncommon for him not to be put on a designated player’s salary.
After the “MLS is Back Tournament,” the 2020 season would resume. Inter Miami, with the additions of two international superstars, would end with a measly 19th-place finish. This caused the firing of manager Diego Alonso and the addition of the English Women’s National Team manager and David Beckham’s Class of ‘92 graduate, Phil Neville. Gonzalo Higuain’s brother, Federico, would join Miami along with Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez to start the 2021 season, but Miami would soon be hit with sanctions by the MLS.
Inter Miami would be investigated by the league early into the season and would be hit with some of the toughest sanctions in league history. Miami had underreported the salaries of Blaise Matuidi, Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez, Nico Figal, and Julian Carranza to the league after they were signed. The league announced that the players had no knowledge of the fraud and were not punished, however, the team itself faced over $2 million in fines, as well as individual fines for the owners including Jorge Mas.
The MLS also stated that owners David Beckham and Marcelo Claure were unaware of the fraud. The players were allowed to finish the 2021 season, but changes had to be made including DP Matias Pelligrini being loaned back to Argentina for the season. With the sanctions hanging over the Miami organization they finished in 20th place this season, one spot below last year despite having Matuidi and Higuain and failing to qualify for playoffs again.
A Frustrated Fanbase and a New Era
The season was disappointing for many reasons, but Gonzalo Higuain was one of the most embarrassing for Miami. Higuain consistently struggled to stay healthy, often looking out of shape and unbothered to help the team. Many of the fans turned against him, calling for Miami to cut him before the next season. Miami, prepared for a large turnover, decided to keep Higuain for the next season.
Miami’s squad would see a massive turnover to comply with league rules. Some of the most influential players would be forced to leave including Lewis Morgan to Red Bull New York, Nico Figal and Leonardo Gonzalo Pirez to Boca Juniors, Matias Pellegrini to New York City FC, Julian Carranza to Philadelphia, and the loaning of Rodolfo Pizzaro to Monterrey. Miami would also leave Matuidi out of their roster despite having him under contract for one more year.
With many of their original players now gone, Miami had a clean slate to improve the team. Using a smarter, MLS-proven strategy Miami would build a squad using the players they already had and making intelligent moves within MLS and outside.
Some of the most important of these would be trading for 2020 MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo from Toronto, loaning in Wolves striker Leonardo Campana, and singing their new captain and USMNT right back DeAndre Yedlin from Galatasaray. Other additions such as Emerson Rodriguez from Milionarios, Jean Mota from Santos, and Bryce Duke from LAFC would mark the start of a new era for Inter Miami.
The 2022 season would be a rollercoaster for the Inter Miami fans and organization. Miami had failed to win a game until their sixth match against New England Revolution. They would then go on a winning streak for four games, including beating heavyweights LAFC, their most important player being Leonardo Campana who would score 7 goals in Miami’s first 11 games compared to Higuain who scored only 2 in the first 11 games.
However, Leonardo Campana would only play 26 matches this season due to a knee injury suffered in August. While this should have been Miami’s death sentence, Gonzalo Higuain would become Miami’s most important player this season. Higuain would score 2 games within the first 6 games this season and would not score again until the final half of the season in which he would score 14 goals for the final 16 games giving Miami their very first playoff berth and winning himself the MLS Comeback Player of the Year.
Little of the original Inter Miami team remains in South Florida, but the new strategy has proven to be effective as they were able to qualify for playoffs for the first time in 2022. Losing to New York City FC in the first round is understandably upsetting to many Miami fans, but it shows the amazing progress Miami has made in only a year. This progress is even more impressive given that Miami had only one DP in Gonzalo Higuain.
Despite Higuain retiring after their MLS playoff exit, Miami has much to look forward to. A solid young core is already in place with older leaders in players like Pozuelo and DeAndre Yedlin to help with the development of the younger players. Even better news for Inter Miami fans is that Leo Campana has the option to buy clause in his contract. Miami looks all but certain to activate this clause and bring their second top scorer back into their team.
Miami’s next goal needs to be to win the fans over. Miami’s attendance was strong at the beginning of their inaugural season, but with constant disappointment, many fans left the team behind. Miami ranks last in the MLS for total attendance and averages only 70% of stadium capacity per game. Miami brings in fewer fans than Vancouver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City. Miami has also lost an average of 1,000 fans per game from just a year earlier.
To give Miami credit DRV PNK stadium will only remain up until the completion of Miami Freedom Park. However, for the time being, Inter Miami fans will need to get used to the pink and black checkerboard of seats as they have yet to begin breaking ground for it, having just received city approval in September of 2022.
Inter Miami’s start to the league has been disappointing at best and fraudulent at worst, but the 2022 season showed a new beginning for them. Miami is in the enviable position of 3 empty Designated Player slots and a strong MLS core. Inter Miami’s front office is faced now with the task of balancing improving the team without ruining the chemistry and making signings to bring fans back.
Miami has yet to prove they are ready to become an MLS powerhouse. Poor signings, fraudulent dealings with the league, and poor results have caused many to write off Miami as a serious club, but the sanctions seem to have become a blessing in disguise.
With a new coach, an entire team turnover, and smart transfers in, Miami looks more like they are building to become a serious club. Coming off their first playoff berth, 2023 will be their most important year to see if this organization has what it takes to become a top club, but anything besides a strong playoff push by Miami next year will surely be seen as a failure.
By: Cameron Cohen / @upnextUSA
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Michael Reaves / Getty Images