Nashville SC will take on their expansion foe on Sunday at Nissan Stadium. The Boys In Gold will take on Inter Miami CF, who are off to a much improved start, including an impressive 2-1 win in Philadelphia last week.
To get the latest on Miami and their offseason rebuild, we spoke with SBI Soccer‘s Franco Panizo.
Ben Wright: Miami has played two matches so far and have looked significantly improved from last season, with much better performances from Pizarro and the Higuaín brothers. What do you think has changed? Has Phil Neville had a significant impact so far, or are the players just more comfortable and settling in?
Franco Panizo: Like you noted, it is still very early in the season to draw any real conclusions, but a key thus far seems to be that more players feel settled now whereas a year ago things were still hastily being pieced together.
The defensive improvement we have seen from the side thus far has also helped. Apart from giving up three goals in the second half vs. the LA Galaxy in the season opener, Inter Miami has been much more organized and tougher to break down defensively. The team has surrendered just one goal in those three other halves, which is notable.
BW: For 73 minutes against Philadelphia, it looked like Miami was destined for a frustrating loss. And then they exploded for a 2-1 win. What changed, and do you think it’s sustainable for Miami?
FP: Federico Higuaín.
The veteran playmaker came in and changed the game. Some credit goes to Phil Neville certainly for pushing the correct buttons, managing the match, and making the right substitutions, but Higuaín was the star of the show with a goal and an assist off the bench to flip the script.
What the Argentine playmaker brings to the team is a more traditional No. 10-type player, whereas Rodolfo Pizarro plays in that spot but is more an 8 or a hybrid between a 10 and 8. I do not think Higuaín at 36-years old has enough in the tank to start regularly, especially since Inter Miami wants to press, but he might get more minutes in the near future after that impressive display.
Q: A lot has been talked about Pizarro as the 10. Many around MLS seem to think that he’s not a natural 10 and may be better suited to a more box-to-box role. Do you think this is the case, and if so, how does Miami deal with it?
A: I have been of the thought and said repeatedly since last year that Pizarro is not best suited for the attacking midfielder role. Can he play there? Sure. Is it the position where a team can get the most out of him? I do not think so.
Pizarro can unlock a defense — like we saw with that perfectly-timed through ball to Gonzalo Higuaín on the Robbie Robinson goal in the season opener this month — but he does not do it on a consistent basis. His strengths lie in him getting on the ball, combining in short spaces, and moving it. Asking him to pull the strings just does not play to his qualities. He is more a facilitator than a creator, in my opinion, and seems to be a bit too deliberate with the ball when trying to be a 10.
Q: With a lot of new faces in defense, how do you think Miami’s backline will hold up over the season? They’ve kept two solid attacks somewhat in check so far – is that sustainable?
A: I think it is, especially with there being more of an understanding between returning players and the offseason addition of hard-nosed midfielder Gregore to help provide a blanket in front of the back line. Neville and sporting director Chris Henderson have also opted for more experience in the defense, adding the likes of Kelvin Leerdam and Joevin Jones at the fullback spots to go along with underrated centerback duo Nicolas Figal and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
There is also another seasoned pro on the bench right now in central defender Ryan Shawcross, who just made his MLS debut, and two more battle-tested reinforcements in left back Kieran Gibbs and goalkeeper Nick Marsman who are set to arrive in the summer and project to be starters. How those three players fare while transitioning to life in MLS is something to watch, of course, but Inter Miami should be better defensively this year than it was in 2020.
Q: Finally, you reported that the Higuaín brothers will miss the upcoming match after their mother passed away. Obviously, this is far more important than soccer and just a really tough situation for any person to deal with. How do you expect Miami to cope without two of their key attackers? Can Miami pull off a win against a Nashville side that’s created plenty of chances but also given away plenty of goals so far?
A: It seems like Inter Miami may be without several important players for this one. Fellow attackers Rodolfo Pizarro, Robbie Robinson, and Julian Carranza are all major question marks for the weekend in addition to the Higuaín brothers.
Pizarro was not at training on Thursday and Neville said the veteran is “a major doubt” since he is in Mexico working on getting his green card. Robinson practiced yesterday, but Neville said he did not want to take any risks after the winger suffered a hamstring issue in the last match that required his removal. Carranza, who seemed to be the favorite to start up top in place of Gonzalo Higuaín, has been fighting a non-COVID-related illness all week, per Neville.
With so many potential absences, it will be a very tough challenge for Inter Miami on Sunday. Neville said he plans to have the team come out with the same type of approach and game plan, but I would imagine things are slightly altered vs. a Nashville SC side that has shown it can score goals so far this season.
It is MLS so a win is always possible, but a draw seems a more realistic best-case scenario for the South Florida side unless someone really steps up.
Thanks to Franco for his time and expertise. Make sure to follow him @FrancoPanizo for the latest and best coverage of Inter Miami CF.