The Gonzalo Higuain Era, and Inter Miami CF Season End In Playoff Loss to NYCFC

Miami NYCFC

Citi Field – The defending champions NYCFC handed Inter Miami CF a 3-0 loss in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Gabriel Pereira, Maxi Moralez, and Héber scored the goals that put an end to the Herons’ season, and Gonzalo Higuaín’s magnificent career.

The Starting XI had one change from the previous match against CF Montreal, with Alejandra Pozuelo getting the start after missing time for a groin injury. Coach Neville elected to roster a mostly defensive-minded bench for the match, with a goalkeeper, six players with defensive tendencies, and only two players with offensive prowess in Bryce Duke & Indiana Vassilev.

Kick Off Miami

The initial minutes of action had Inter Miami CF come out confident and aggressive, with Robert Taylor blasting a shot on goal near the 4′ minute that was blocked by the NY goalkeeper.

The Pigeons created some threatening situations of their own, putting the Herons in a bind on several occasions.

Around the 22′ minute, Chris Mcvey curled a scintillating pass to Gonzalo Higuaín, who made a run behind the NYCFC defenders and exquisitely directed the ball into the NY goal. Unfortunately, Higuaín was just offside on the play and the goal was called off.

Both squads continued to press forward, with NYCFC slowly taking control of the match creating more menacing chances on goal. The half would end 0-0, with an Inter Miami team lucky to not have been down on the scoreboard.

Second Half all NYCFC

NYCFC continued to dominate the match, with Miami sporadically fabricating scoring chances. Higuaín created one of those chances near the 56′ minute with a fabulous solo run at a defender that ended in a blast that was parried away from goal.

NY would score near the 63′ minute after a series of errors by the Miami backline. A long pass by Maxi Moralez was chested down by Santiago Rodríguez behind the Heron defense,  Aimé Mabika was caught chasing the play and Damion Lowe ran crossfield to cut off Rodriguez. Lowe ran into Mabika, allowing Rodriguez to advance while recovering and challenging him once again. Rodriguez deftly cut back inside of Lowe nutmegging him and setting his feet for the assist to Gabriel Pereira. Pereira struck the ball brilliantly into the left upper corner angle of the Inter Miami goal. NYCFC was up 1-0.

Aimé Mabika astonishingly slowed down after running into Lowe, and never chased the play properly until it was too late. A mental blunder, or a lack of urgency, whatever it was, was not a good look for the young center-back.

NYCFC would score six minutes later with a symphonic run of play, touching the ball around the hapless Herons. Maxi Moralez would score point blank after the Pigeons moved the ball at their leisure to set up the strike by the Argentine playmaker. NYFC 2- IMCF 0.

Héber scored two minutes into stoppage time, closing the scoring for the Pigeons and the season for the Herons. The final 3-0 score was indicative of the NY domination. In a NY minute, the season and Gonzalo’s career were over.

Postgame Press Conference

A dejected Coach Neville took questions from the media after the lopsided loss to NYCFC. I’m going to focus on something he said when he was asked to assess the team’s performance against NY.

“When you play in games of this magnitude, I think mistakes are going to cost you. Concentration and discipline are a real, real big part of competing in these types of games.”

There are always two seasons within the season, the regular season, and the playoffs. The blunders you could get away with in regular season games lead to a 3-0 loss in the playoffs.

It’s not new information to state that teams competing for a championship increase the intensity, focus, and play with greater motivation.

Inter Miami CF seemed to understand that early on in the match against NYCFC, but after about thirty minutes into the game something happened. NYCFC, the reigning champions amped up their performance and Miami could not keep up.

It’s a bit disheartening to see such a poor performance from the Herons in a money game. The whole season led to this, all the must-win games and pressure situations led to this game in NY, and it looked like Miami just ran out of gas.

The mental mistakes, bad decisions, and bad positioning, all made the Herons look like a team that did not belong in the playoffs. The problem with that is that they did belong, and earned the right to play postseason matches with crucial wins in pressure games.

Miami’s performance was uncharacteristic of a team that had battled all season long until the very last whistle, leaving everything on the pitch. Monday night’s defeat against NY showed that the Herons have a ways to go before being able to compete with the big boys, and the difference might be more mental than physical.

Final Thoughts

One of the first things I noticed pregame was the ultra defensive bench rostered by Phil Neville for the match against NYCFC. The bench did not seem balanced and lacked variety in the options available in attacking positions. The way the match played out, I imagine Phil would have preferred to roster another player like Emerson Rodriguez or Coco Jean, just to name two players that would have given him greater flexibility. Neither Rodriguez or Jean have done much this season, but they are examples of players that could play more than one attacking position. Instead, Phil chose to limit his options with a limited bench.

Bryce Duke came on near the 80′ minute of the match with the team down 2-0, after two defensive players were switched for two other defensive players. Too little too late. Unfortunately, it seems that Duke never really earned enough trust from Neville to start this match. His technical ability and vision seemed to fit Citi Field’s smaller pitch, but instead, Indiana Vassilev was brought on at the 58′ minute for Lassiter, with the game still up for grabs. That should have been Duke coming on for Lassiter. He and Pozuelo had good chemistry all season long, and both were capable of providing Gonzalo with scoring chances. Gregore could have been shifted to create a double pivot with Mota. Gregore is a good player, but he is best as a defender and not a player going forward creating for others or scoring for this team.

Alejandro Pozuelo is a big question mark for this team, and Chris Henderson has a tough decision to make here. Pozuelo definitely provided a boost, but at what cost? It seemed the team became dependent on Pozuelo to a fault. He had marvelous games, but he also had games where he was invisible. Pozuelo’s arrival cut down on Duke’s development. Players develop playing, not sitting on the bench. Inter Miami’s best performance of the season in my opinion occurred against Orlando City when they won 4-1. Pozuelo was not on the field and the team intensity was high, and the young players provided quality performances. If he is to return, I would hope it would be at a bargain price.

The Herons have many needs heading into the offseason. Chris Henderson has a bunch of tough decisions and moves to make. The good thing is that the rebuild is ahead of schedule and a good core of players is still on the team.

Gonzalo Higuaín went out on a blaze of glory in his final season. The final game was not ideal, but Gonzalo himself can leave knowing that he was one of the few players that actually had a good performance. Farewell to a classy man who played and lives in accordance with his beliefs and values. He completely changed the negative narrative around him with Inter Miami CF, and he did it in spectacular fashion.

The roller coaster season came to a screeching halt for Miami. It was a fun ride while it lasted. Let’s see what’s in store for next season. I’m expecting a few upgrades and a better finale.

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