In this edition of Oppo Research, we look at Inter Miami, who are in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history, and who will be New York City FC’s opponents at Citi Field on Monday in the Gender Reveal Derby.
1. Pozuelo is the straw that stirs the piña colada
In what was arguably the biggest summer signing in MLS, Inter Miami acquired Alejandro Pozuelo from Toronto FC in July, turning around the fortunes of David Beckham’s shiny pink toy. An inconsistent team that was limping through another mediocre season despite putting up a handful of impressive results (they beat Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field and the Portland Timbers in Ft Lauderdale, and drew FC Dallas on the road), suddenly started to win more games than they lost.
The numbers tell the story of Pozuelo’s arrival: Miami won six out of 19 games before he joined the lineup, and eight out of 15 after. Even more telling, Miami were held scoreless seven times before Pozuelo joined the team, and just twice after. He gelled Miami’s attack.
Monday’s game will be extra-spicy if Pozuelo plays. The Spaniard has broken the hearts of NYCFC fans many times, starting with his MLS debut in 2019 for Toronto FC. In that game, Pozuelo provided one assist, converted a penalty kick with a panenka, and scored with a chip into the upper 90. Then there was the MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinal at the end of that same season, when Pozuelo scored a penalty in the 90th minute to knock NYCFC out of the tournament. Do we need to remind you that the game took place at Citi Field, the same venue as Monday’s game?
Notice we said “if” up above — that’s because Pozuelo could be questionable for the Gender Reveal Derby. The midfielder was sidelined with a groin injury in Miami’s 3-1 loss to Montréal CF on Decision Day, when the Cabana Boys looked rudderless without him in the midfield.
2. Higuaín is the
Comeback Kid the Most Interesting Striker in the World
MLS is always good for a laugh. Earlier this week, the league nominated Miami striker Gonzalo Higuaín for the MLS Comeback Player of the year in acknowledgment of his scintillating play in recent months. OK, but Higuaín made a “comeback” only because he was phoning it in since he joined Signing Bonus CF from Juventus. The Athletic writer Sam Stejskal put it best:
Gazdag not being an MVP finalist is a real snub, but Higuain being a finalist for comeback player of the year after coming back from not trying even a little bit for the first 1.5 years of his MLS career is the real headline.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) October 13, 2022
I hope he wins. pic.twitter.com/VYQ7qdnZdK
Nonetheless, Higuaín has been in excellent form in recent months, and bagged 16 goals in 28 appearances this season. The aging striker has come through for his team again and again, scoring one game-winner after another. True, Higuaín benefits from the work rate of strike partner Leo Campana, a 22-year-old with 11 goals in 26 appearances, and from sitting at the top of a midfield conducted by Pozuelo. In other words, Higuaín is a marquee player who needs a supporting cast.
Higuaín also announced that he will retire from professional soccer once this season ends — we’re sure the crowd at Citi Field will give him a standing O after he plays his final MLS game on Monday.
3. Miami lets in lots and lots of goals
The Pink Flamingoes allowed a whopping 56 goals in 2022 – only Toronto FC and DC United let in more. Miami’s climb up the table started after Pozuelo joined the cub, but that’s because he sharpened the attack, not because the defense figured out how to close down games.
Which makes the decision by MLS to nominate Drake Callendar for goalkeeper of the year a real head-scratcher. The 25-year-old is a thoroughly average keeper with a PSxG of 1.49 (the number of goals he’s expected to allow per 90 minutes), which puts him in the 42nd percentile according to FBref. Callender is capable of making important saves, but he isn't exactly a brick wall.
4. Road Worriers
Miami have won just four games on the road. Two of those were early in the season against Western Conference opponents, before Pzuelo joined the club, and two were in September, when they beat Toronto and DC United to finish the season on a strong note.
But they also lost on the road in recent weeks to the New Jersey Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, and Montréal. To slice and dice it a different way, Miami haven't beaten a playoff-bound team on the road this year. It could be because Miami have a hard time scoring when they’re the away team, and you can’t win if you don’t score. Only 13 of Miami’s 47 goals were netted on the road, and the team was held scoreless seven times — including the 2-0 loss to NYCFC in the Bronx back in July.
5. Phil Neville is a jackass
Phil Neville on not knowing where Monday's playoff game is being held: "Cannot book our hotel, travel, can't let supporters know. This is not a preseason scrimmage. It's a playoff game. In 4 years the World Cup is coming to this country. Can't comprehend the delay."— Michelle Kaufman (@kaufsports) October 12, 2022
Because the other option, namely that he sincerely thinks moving a game 20 miles means you’ll need to fly into a different airport and book new hotel rooms, is so infantile that we honestly would be concerned about his ability to function in the 21st century.
Maybe his dig at the United States hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup is a tipoff: He’s just having a laugh! At NYCFC’s and America’s expense! And if it’s more awkward and strident than funny, well, that’s his brand of humor. Take the time that he cracked a joke about beating his spouse when he tweeted “Relax I’m back chilled- just battered the wife!!! Feel better now!” Or that time when he teased his sister by tweeting at her “@gina_shoes u women of always wanted equality until it comes to paying the bills #hypocrites.” Don’t think that domestic abuse and equal rights are hilarious? Lighten up, it’s all in good fun.
There are two ways to look at Neville’s tenure in Miami. One, he succeeded in lifting an underperforming club into the playoffs in their third season in MLS, delivering on the promise of what could become one of the most glamorous teams in the league. He got the job done.
Or, Neville started the year with the third-highest payroll in MLS, added one of the best players in the league in Pozeulo, and despite having some of the greatest resources in North American soccer at his disposal he made it into the postseason only because Charlotte FC’s Cinderella story ended and Columbus Crew imploded. Who says you can’t buy success?