Inter Miami is officially playoff bound.
The club clinched its first direct qualification to the MLS Cup Playoffs in its history last night with a dominant 4-1 win at home against state rivals Orlando City SC. Goals from Leonardo Campana, Gonzalo Higuain, and Ariel Lassiter lifted Miami over the team sitting directly above them in the eastern conference standings in the decisive match. Orlando picked up a consolation goal from Ercan Kara.
Higuain, who announced earlier this week that he would be retiring at the end of this season, extended his lead as Miami’s top goal scorer, bagging his 15th and 16th goals of the season. The Argentinian is putting an exclamation point on a storied career.
“I want to thank the fans. Because of them I’ve lived one of the most beautiful nights of my career,” Higuain said post-game. “This club brought back to enjoyment of playing football, and I’m living a great year though it hasn’t been easy.”
Campana set the tone early when he pounced on an Orlando turnover to chip the ball over goalkeeper Pedro Gallese for the opening goal 37 seconds into the match. This was his 11th goal of what’s been a standout debut season in MLS for the Ecuadorian. He would leave the game after being injured in the 31st minute, however, and was replaced by Ariel Lassiter.
Both teams came out of the following kickoff with aggression as they entered the night level on points and in direct competition for the final playoff spots. Orlando held possession during most of the first half, but failed to register a shot on target during that period.
Miami made more use of its limited chances in front of goal and eventually midfielder Indy Vassilev found Lassiter who played a cross into Higuain; he extended the lead to 2-0 heading in halftime. Inter’s clean sheet to this point was in large part due to the play of the center back pairing of Damion Lowe and Aime Mabika.
Orlando had no answer for Miami’s counterattack, and in the 53rd minute a hand ball against their right back Ruan gave the Herons a penalty, which Higuain converted for his second of the night and Miami’s third. Three minutes later La Rosanerga (Miami’s colors) would storm down on another counter attack led by Ariel Lassiter and he decided to take the shot on himself rather than squaring the pass to Higuain. His shot crept into the bottom corner to make it 4-0 to Miami.
Orlando would receive a consolation goal in the 71st minute from Kara, but the game was a done deal. Inter Miami qualified for the MLS Cup Playoff, despite many betting against them.
This team has seen a remarkable turnaround from last season to now, and head coach Phil Neville was happy to prove the doubters wrong.
“In the first season I got incredible backing from the ownership, because they could’ve got rid of me,” Neville said. “It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t good, I didn’t like what I was seeing myself, but they had incredible belief in me and my staff.”
That belief has paid off as Miami is currently four places ahead of where it finished last season and could end the season with as many as 10 more points than the 41 they amassed during 2021. Higuain’s form during the final games of his storied career has been a massive contributor to that rise.
“Getting left out of the team was a turning point.” Neville said about Higuain who has 14 goals in the last 15 matches. “He came to my office during that period and told me he was quitting football at the end of the season. From that moment he started to score goals. It was as if the big weight [of carrying the club] had lifted off his shoulders.”
Higuain’s rise in form hasn’t come without the help of the team,
“We have a lot of new players, and honestly I’m really proud to be a part of this team,” Higuain said. “They leave their lives on the field, and I just have to leave mine as well to help us achieve our dreams of being [MLS] champions.”
Miami now turns to Sunday afternoon, when they host second-place CF Montreal at 2:30 p.m. in the final game of the regular season. While the team has qualified, Neville has set a new goal for the final match: win and secure a home game in the first round.
“I want a home playoff.” Miami’s coach said. “The teams that have been successful in the playoffs are the ones that play at home.”
Miami has won 10 of its 16 home games this season.
There’s one more “cup final,” as Neville referred to the last stretch of games, before their biggest test yet.