The LA Galaxy stormed back from multiple deficits to spoil Inter Miami’s first fan-attended home opener, scoring twice in the final half hour to win 3-2 Sunday afternoon at DRV Pink Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.
For Inter Miami, it was a bitter pill to swallow. The club and its fans waited more than half a decade for this day, a fan-attended home opener. To play as well as they did– outshooting the Galaxy 19-7, winning the oft-discussed “expected goal” statistic by a goal, controlling possession in central areas in the final third– and not earn a result, is a tough blow. But Inter Miami’s new manager, Phil Neville, saw reasons for optimism despite hurt in the dressing room:
“I thought it was a hard result,” Neville said. “Unfortunately, on the two late goals we just made simple mistakes, and those mistakes cost you at this level when you play against players of that caliber. We were punished by those mistakes today because ultimately, we were the team that created the most chances, opportunities and shots. I definitely didn’t think we deserved to lose.”
While Inter Miami won’t relish a moral victory, the crowd was amazing. They arrived early and sang in full-throat until late, a reminder of the excitement surrounding this club in South Florida and in a grander sense, a reminder of the way fans are the soul of the sport. Neville agreed.
“Supporters were amazing, I have to say,” Neville said following the game. “After playing in empty stadiums and without fans for so long, I think we all forgot how much they matter, how important they are not just to your football club but to the whole of football and having our supporters here today in this incredible atmosphere was everything.”
— Conrado Giulietti (@conka) April 18, 2021
Beyond the club’s magnificent supporters, Inter Miami also played good soccer for long spells Sunday afternoon.
After a sluggish, probing start from both sides, Inter Miami started to come into the game a bit around the 15 minute mark, with a good spell of play that saw Rodolfo Pizarro miss just over the net after being played through by a dangerous looking Gonzalo Higuaín and an active Robbie Robinson.
“Robinson has the confidence of me, he has the confidence of the team. The boy has great potential. We told (the media) it in preseason and I think you saw that today,” Neville said of the second year forward, who would score a goal and influence another.
Early on, he and Higuaín led a dominant spell of play that saw Inter Miami create five terrific chances in the span of fifteen minutes, including two that forced excellent saves by the Galaxy’s goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who was busy all afternoon. The duo led a bright opening half hour for Inter Miami, but playing in 91 degree heat with a heat index near 100, they likely regretted going to the game’s first water break with nothing to show for their dominance.
Fortunately for the hosts, the breakthrough would come in the first half hour. Rodolfo Pizarro won the ball in the ball in traffic and sliced a cutting ball to Higuaín in space. The Argentine forward lumbered towards goal, and as Galaxy defenders frantically closed the space, he dropped off beautifully for a trailing Robinson, who made no mistake to give Inter Miami their first goal of the season and a deserved 1-0 halftime lead.
Unaware of the ending awaiting them, Inter Miami fans likely felt immense relief watching the Herons start the second fast after a frustrating inaugural season full of disastrous second half starts a season ago. Inter Miami generated two terrific chances in the first 5 minutes of the second half, both led by rookie Robbie Robinson. The best, a Robinson effort, was saved well by Bond after a series of tight passes in a triangle between Pizarro, Higuaín and Robinson, was particularly indicative of a newfound crispness to the Inter Miami attack rarely seen in the final third a year ago.
Unfortunately, the promise of Inter Miami’s beginning to the second half was spoiled at the hour mark, when Chicharito found just a small amount of space to separate from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and finished an Ethan Zubak cross beautifully past John McCarthy.
To the delight of a suddenly pensive Fort Lauderdale crowd, at a socially-distanced capacity of 8,000, the hosts answered adversity’s first bell of the season in less than ten minutes.Pizarro was played through by Matuidi and found his way into a one on one situation in the tactical area known as zone fourteen with Villafaña, Pizarro shimmied left then went right, engaged Villafaña and milked the contact, drawing the penalty call from referee Chris Penso. Moments later, Higuaín had put the home side back in front, cooly finishing his penalty after sending Bond the wrong way.
But Inter Miami’s joy of reclaiming the lead was to be short lived.
New Galaxy manager Greg Vanney’s decision to switch to a 4-4-2 impacted the game, giving Chicharito much needed room to breathe and giving bite to a Galaxy midfield that had struggled to find space centrally in the final third. The impact of the formation switch was felt directly with Zubak’s involvement in LA Galaxy’s first equalizer, but the presence of a second forward creating traffic in the area also directly led to the Galaxy’s second goal.
Less than 5 minutes after the Higuaín penalty, a deep, probing cross was misplayed by McCarthy and, after a swarm of players tried to head the ball goalward, it fell to Chicharito at the far right post. The Mexican international made no mistake, poking home for his brace and leveling the game at two. It was a tough moment for John McCarthy, the longtime USL and MLS backup who had waited so long to be a MLS number one on opening weekend.
Chicharito with the double!
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 18, 2021
Seizing the momentum from their surprise equalizer, LA Galaxy snatched the lead back in the 81st minute thanks to some brilliant work from substitute Sacha Kljestan. The longtime MLS stalwart’s late run saw him find space to run onto a touch pass from Sebastian Lletget and send it past a frozen McCarthy, giving the Galaxy their first lead. That the goal sequence came when Lletget, not the three Inter Miami defenders in the area, collected a deflected Oniel Fisher cross, only served to compound the Herons’ agony.
Still, Inter Miami fought to the end, generating two splendid chances at an equalizer.
First, in the 85th minute, the industrious Robinson found substitute Federico Higuaín who crossed to an onrunning Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, only to see his fellow Argentine’s smashed effort slide just wide left. Then, on what would prove to be the final piece of play before the final whistle, Jorge Figal managed to get loose on a set piece and was teed up perfectly by Federico Higuaín, only to see his free header dip just left of the goal. Figal collapsed to the ground and looked skyward after the miss, embodying the reaction of an entire fanbase that had waited so long for their home opener in the sun, only to see their hopes of earning at least one point in the game crumble in the game’s final half hour.