Harrison, New Jersey — After a rocky beginning and a September slump, should Inter Miami make a playoff run in their inaugural season after all, make sure you mark a warm October night in New Jersey as the turning point.
La Rosa Negra rallied with two second half goals, including a stunner from newly acquired star Gonzalo Higuaín, to capture a vital road win against the New York Red Bulls 2-1 Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for Inter Miami and put the club squarely back in the Eastern Conference playoffs discussion.
“It was a match that was emotionally challenging and physical to play,” Inter Miami manager Diego Alonso said after the victory. “We were down five starters. It was great to see the players behind those players take advantage. They did well and of course on the free kick from Gonzalo, he showed us what we were waiting for, a player with great quality who has the ability to change a game and make us a better team.”
Playing without five starters and for the first time this season, without captain Luis Robles, who is out with a broken arm, and talismanic midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who is away with Mexico on international duty, this game figured to be a tough ask for the shorthanded Herons.
Instead, the Fort Lauderdale side delivered one of their most inspired and spirited efforts of their inaugural season.
The Herons struggled with the ball in the first half, unable to keep it for long spells against the Red Bulls high press and unable to find much of a conduit between the midfield and Gonzalo Higuaín in the absence of Pizarro.
But the club defended compactly and bravely, led by French international Blaise Matuidi, who played his finest game in a MLS shirt. The World Cup winner was a midfield maestro all evening. He marshaled the defense well, winning five duels and five 50/50 balls as well, both game highs. He made a sensational, goal-saving play early, charging from the top of the 18 to clear a Tom Barlow shot off the line at the final instant.
.@MATUIDIBlaise to the rescue! 😱 #RBNYvMIA pic.twitter.com/OdP6sJrvT3
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 7, 2020
Matuidi was influential in not only defensively, but offensively as well. It was his passing that eventually connected the midfield toHiguaín and the playmaking Lewis Morgan and a terrific Mattias Pellegrini, and late in the game, using his ability to retain the ball that helped Inter Miami see the game through.
Players shine for Inter Miami CF
Matuidi was hardly Inter Miami’s lone hero.
John McCarthy also played well in place of Robles, making three saves, including an excellent one on Barlow in the 24th minute.
The Herons would fall behind early in the second half, as for the second consecutive game the club struggled with a set piece clearance, allowing an opponent to capitalize. This time, Inter Miami lost the ball trying to dribble out of the back and the ball found its way to Jared Stroud, the Red Bulls midfielder who dominated proceedings in Fort Lauderdale last month. Stroud laid off in space to Omir Fernandez, who buried the pass one-time to hand the Red Bulls the lead.
However, Inter Miami equalized almost immediately through an unlikely source.
Matias Pellegrini, brought in by Inter Miami at a huge fee for such a young player, has struggled throughout his inaugural season. But he made good on his promise Wednesday night, when he ran through the left channel and onto a gorgeous parabola of a pass from Lewis Morgan and finished well past the big Dane David Jensen to tie the game.
The two sides prodded each other like cagey boxers thereafter, each side remaining compact, afraid to make a mistake. For most of the night, a visibly frustrated Higuaín was held in check by USMNT center back Aaron Long, who man-marked the Argentine striker all evening.
But in the 81st minute, a Jason Pendant foul away from Higuaín gave Inter Miami a free kick in a dangerous area. From the moment Pipita stepped over the ball, there was no doubt who would take the kick. Higuaín curled a beauty over the wall — with a little help from a ducking Pellegrini — and past Jensen into the upper right corner.
Gonzalo Higuaín with his first @InterMiamiCF goal in MLS and yup…it’s a beauty (via @MLS) pic.twitter.com/KsFB6GfE2J
— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) October 8, 2020
The goal set off a raucous celebration, with Higuaín embraced by nearly every one of his teammates that made the trip after opening his MLS account.
“I didn’t feel relief. I’ve been playing at the highest level my whole career. I didn’t feel pressure. I’ve played in the best leagues in the world. That’s my role. I am here to score,” Higuaín said.
Higuaín impresses for Inter Miami – and is impressed by MLS
Higuaín said he’s been impressed by MLS since arriving in America, and was glad to help his side gain such a critical victory.
“It’s a league that’s very competitive. It’s very physical. It’s tough. It’s a difficult and challenging league. I like it and playing in this league. It’s very similar to the Italian league where I came from which is why I think I’ll be able to adapt and fit into this league,” Higuaín told the media following the game.
Higuaín’s golazo was Inter Miami’s first goal off a direct set piece all year, and it sealed perhaps the club’s most unlikely and impressive result.
“We played without Luis Robles, without Andres Reyes, without Pizarro, without Agudelo– without five of our usual starters,” Alonso said. “I think it was important those behind them were able to step in and push the team. It was also important that those with hierarchy and experience, like Higuaín, Nico Figal, and Matuidi showed a great performance. They were able to lead us. But we also saw a young player like (Pellegrini) play their best. It was wonderful to see that type of effort.”
Outshot and out possessed, Inter Miami left winners anyway, possibly a bit of justice from the soccer gods after a season full of games where the Fort Lauderdale side felt like they were the better team but left games with nothing to show for it. Now, they head home with three points and a chance to gain momentum with the Dynamo coming to town Saturday.