A week after a festive, sun-splashed season-opening welcome from its fans, Inter Miami heads to Philadelphia for a chilly and compelling Saturday evening matchup against the Union at Subaru Park.
Although the teams played just twice last season, already there are story lines brewing between the Eastern Conference rivals.
Inter Miami co-captain Gonzalo Higuain made his much-hyped MLS debut at Philadelphia last September, and it is not a pleasant memory. Not only did Miami lose 3-0, but Higuain sent a penalty kick sailing over the bar and then the Argentine was involved in a brief shoving match as a few Union players celebrated his miss in his face.
Asked Thursday whether Higuain appears to have extra fire in training this week in anticipation of the return to Subaru Park (8 p.m., CBS4), Neville said: “He’s been in football long enough, think about the Italian league he played in where the defenders are absolutely brutal. He knows full well the only way he can answer that kind of retribution is by sticking the ball in the back of the net. That’s what we want from him every single game, and if he’s not scoring, he’s setting up chances like he did for Robbie [Robinson].”
The coach said Higuian has been a good leader and “full of confidence” after contributing a goal and assist in the 3-2 opening loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Another story line to watch is the homecoming of Miami goalkeeper John McCarthy, a Philadelphia native who was let go by the Union in 2019 after four years with the club.
“I love John McCarthy as a player and a person,” Union coach Jim Curtin said on Thursday. “It’s never easy, but we both understood the situation. He wanted to become a starter, Andre Blake was doing great things here. Johnny’s a hard worker, a true professional.
“I’m sure there’s nothing he wants more than to beat the Philadelphia Union and prove we made a mistake. It will be an intense 90 minutes. We can hopefully smile about it after. I am happy for him and proud of him.”
Curtin heaped praise on Inter Miami and said the team’s record does not reflect its quality.
Inter Miami finished 10th in the conference last year, while Philadelphia won the Supporters Shield with the league’s best record. The Union has won nine of its past 10 home games and just reached the CONCACAF Round of 16 with a 5-0 aggregate win in two games against Costa Rican club Saprissa.
Curtin felt Inter Miami “played some of the best soccer” opening weekend and that midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro was one of the best players leaguewide. He already sees Neville’s imprint on the team after one game.
“When you look at the teams he has managed, they’re very organized defensively, difficult to play against… With Neville there now they will have a true identity, and that starts with a strong defensive mindset and defensive core. We’ll have our hands full in our home opener.”
As for Miami’s roster, Curtin said: “When you talk about the quality they have, obviously Higuain, a world-class striker. I thought Pizarro was excellent [last Sunday] and one of the best players in Week 1, a player I think very highly of, is very dangerous. [Blaise] Matuidi looked very active and covered a ton of ground box to box. Some of their new players they added, with [sporting director] Chris Henderson’s knowledge in Seattle bringing some real proven MLS pieces, I think it’s a really good blend of young talent, and some real good experience and dangerous players, as well.”
Curtin said Miami forward Robinson is a player he was high on before the 2020 draft. “Robbie is another dynamic attacking player that last year for various reason was in and out of the lineup. But if he gets a run of games, the kid’s going to score goals in this league. I hope that doesn’t get started against us.”
Neville’s squad has been focusing on fitness this week. Due to COVID-related cancellations, Miami went the entire preseason without a test game against an MLS opponent. Fatigue set in late in Sunday’s game, and Neville said his players might not be fully fit for a few more weeks. The Union presents a daunting challenge.
“They play with high energy, they have a fantastic coach, it’s an incredibly difficult game,” Neville said. “How we respond as a group will tell me a lot about this team about how far we’ve come as far as the spirit, culture and values we’ve tried to implement.”
Meanwhile, the club awaits word any day from MLS on sanctions for the Matuidi contract that did not comply with league roster rules. “When initially the speculation and ruling came out, I think it did have an effect on [Matuidi] for a couple of days because he’s obviously someone who’s a top professional and likes his life to be really calm, but ultimately he’s been fantastic the last couple of weeks from my point of view.”
▪ Neville on the short-lived European Super League proposal: “The overriding feeling is that a group of people probably totally misread or had a lack of knowledge about what football means to people in England and in Europe, particularly in England. You think about the stances of all the supporters of those six clubs that tried to break away. It made me really, really proud.
“When you look back at the history of the six clubs in England, their foundations are based on working class people, on supporters. And a group of people decided to make their own decision. What we’ve got to do now is accept their apology and their massive grave misunderstanding, misreading of the situation and still make sure football is in a good place for the next 100 years. The last 12 months football took a financial battering just like every other industry.
“Watching my brother (Gary) speak so passionately on Sunday night when nobody really knew anything about it, or the ins and outs, he had the courage and bravery to stand up for what was right. I think he started the ball rolling and 24 to 48 hours later common sense prevailed.”