After an underwhelming first season in Major League Soccer, Inter Miami CF has had one of the most significant roster turnovers in the league from last year. Starting up top with the front office and head coach, all the way to scouting directors and players, Miami has made copious changes heading into their second year. The addition of Chris Henderson as Sporting Director and Phil Neville as Head Coach (or Gaffer, as I like to say) has already seemed to make MAJOR impacts on this roster as their influence on signings has been very, very evident.
Much of Inter Miami’s problems last year stemmed from inconsistencies in the defense. If Leandro Gonzalez Pirez never signed for the South Florida club, it’s hard to imagine just how much worse their inaugural season could have been. Roman Torres would’ve likely never been traded. The club would’ve probably relied on him, Nico Figal, and Ben Sweat, A.J. DeLaGarza, Andres Reyes, Alvas Powell, or Christian Makoun as options in Diego Alonso’s three-at-the-back formations. Things got ugly for Inter Miami defensively early on in the summer of 2020. It carried on through to the playoff match in Nashville that resulted in a 3-0 defeat due to a lack of identity, focus, and defensive help.
The additions of Ryan Shawcross, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, Kieran Gibbs, Patrick Seagrist, Aime Mabika (I think), and Ian Fray were all made by the new men in charge to help create a better defensive identity in Phil Neville’s projected 4-3-3 formation this season. Here’s how:
One of the weakest points all of last year was our lack of depth and starting quality and the wing-back position. On the left, it was a mix of Ben Sweat and Mikey Ambrose. On the right, we had one game of Alvas Powell in Los Angeles, and it went so poorly that we didn’t see him until the last couple of games of the season. Nealis and Figal were the replacements there.
Sweat and Ambrose have moved on to Austin FC and Atlanta United, respectively. Both guys delivered some excellent moments on the offensive side, including this beauty from Mikey to seal our spot in the playoffs:
Sadly our two left-backs pretty much had more of a positive impact on offense than they did on defense, which led to trouble. As for the right side, Dylan Nealis, in his second year, is still unproven despite a decent rookie season, and Figal should be seen as center-back where statistically, he’s been more effective.
Needless to say, changes were needed. Additions were to be had. Chris Henderson and the Miami Front Office delivered.
It started with a trade for Patrick Seagrist late in 2020 from the New York Red Bulls. The tenth pick of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft only made three appearances for the Red Bulls and is unproven in the league thus far. In a piece for Five Reasons when the deal happened, I discussed how Seagrist would fit into the side but ultimately stated he likely wouldn’t be a full-time starter. He needs more time. That left only Brek Shea as a potential starter at the left-back position until Chris Henderson called a familiar face.
Joevin Jones signed as an MLS Free Agent at the beginning of the month, and it all seemed to be worked out on the left side. The two-time MLS Cup Champion would walk into the starting XI. At 29 years old, coming off a good year with Seattle, Jones is ready to play and should provide some comfort for fans on the defense’s left side. At least until July.
Rumors of Kieran Gibbs joining Inter Miami had been around for quite some time. For the most part, it seemed unlikely after the Jones signing, and even before then too. Gibbs is currently West Bromwich Albion’s highest-paid player and rarely sees the pitch. Getting Gibbs to come to South Florida would have always entailed waiting until his contract ends at the end of June. There’d be no reason for the player to accept a buyout unless the price was very lucrative, and I doubt either West Brom or Inter Miami would have coughed up any money to do so. If you wanted Gibbs, you’d have to be patient. That was always going to be the case, and it is the case now.
The former Arsenal man was announced officially as a future Inter Miami CF player yesterday on a pre-contract agreement. Gibbs is to arrive on July 1st of this year, and depending on his fitness levels, and how Neville sees the team then, he’ll likely walk right into the starting lineup as a left-back.
So what does that do for Jones then? Is he to lose his position in the team? Not really.
Jones has been capable of playing as a winger or wide midfielder in his time with Seattle and the Trinidad & Tobago National Team. Brek Shea, for example, was used as a presence off the bench in wide areas, and when Gibbs arrives, I see Jones as the same kind of threat. Whether it be starting up top or coming off the bench, Jones will be utilized in this team even if Gibbs is to go in and take the starting role at left-back. At the very least, Jones is Gibbs’ immediate replacement if anything is to happen.
On the same day Gibbs was announced, the club also announced Kelvin Leerdam’s arrival.
Leerdam, the former Sounders right-back (it’s all Henderson), was traded to Inter Miami for just $75k in GAM that is spread over the next two seasons. Like Jones, Leerdam is coming off a pretty good year in Seattle and leaves the club having won an MLS title.
He immediately jumps over Nealis as the number one right back on the roster, which does a lot more than solidify the right side. The move for Leerdam now allows Phil Neville to have a starter he can be comfortable with on the right side without having to worry about playing one of his better center backs out of position. With Leerdam as the starter and Nealis as the backup, it’d probably take quite the chain of events for fans to see Figal playing as a right-back this year.
Jones and Gibbs to cover the left side, Leerdam, Nealis to protect the right. Seagrist and possibly Shea could step in if needed.
The Ideal Center Back Pairing
Very simply put, the additions of starting-caliber wing-backs on both sides shows that Figal is CB option number two, behind LGP. There was talk before the Leerdam signing (from myself included) that Figal was a possible option as a right-back, where he played some last year under Alonso. As mentioned, Nealis is still unproven as a starter. Plus, the Shawcross signing gave additional depth in the middle.
I apologize for the Stoke City fans reading these harsh words about your club legend Ryan Shawcross. Still, when you consider all factors, there’s no way Ryan is beating out Figal or LGP for a starting spot to begin the season. He is the number three option right now, and the front office made the signing to have a third quality center back who can start when needed.
Let’s be honest here, LGP and Figal WILL both have a yellow card accumulation suspension this year; you can count on that.
Let’s also be honest about Shawcross.
He has only played in 247 minutes of first-team football dating back to March of last year. Then he came out in an interview recently stating he was “headed for retirement” until he got a call from South Florida. None of that, including his extended injury history in the last 17 months, shows the signs of a guy who will be coming late to a training camp/pre-season (due to the wait on an International Transfer Certificate [ITC] and P-1 Visa) and be ready to start on opening day.
The Shawcross issues and the Leerdam signing lead to an inevitable Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Nico Figal center-back pairing to start the season. In the primes of their careers, both guys should be ready to lead this team from the back as they were the best pairing of last year. Not to say it’s the perfect pairing or best pairing in MLS, but with a little bit of added chemistry, help from the midfield, and security possibly by the wing-backs, improvement from this duo should be expected in 2021. Plus, Neville should be very tactically strict, and the club won’t see formation changes from week to week.
In order, my CB depth chart looks like this: LGP, Figal, Shawcross, Makoun, and Mabika (if he’s to sign for the first team). Ian Fray doesn’t make the list after his unfortunate ACL injury at the beginning of preseason.
We wish you the best, Ian.
Projected Opening Day Defensive Lineup
In goal, Miami will field John McCarthy, of course. On the left, Gibbs could start, but that’s in July. Jones will be there until then. Both Figal and LGP will be in the middle as the center-back pairing we should look forward to this year. Shawcross as the immediate backup. And Leerdam will take over the right side with Nealis right behind him on the depth chart.
Compared to last season in which Miami fielded a backline of Robles, Sweat, Figal, Torres, and Powell on opening day in LA, I’d say that this is quite the upgrade.