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Inter Miami CF v. LA Galaxy – Preview

A game meant to take place last season is finally here.

Inter Miami CF is set to take on LA Galaxy at 3 pm here in Fort Lauderdale. DRV PNK Stadium will host about 8,000 fans in the stands today as the two clubs face off on MLS Opening Weekend. Beckham’s old club, versus the one he owns, the storylines write themselves.

As for what it means for both sides, it’s ideally everything. Both clubs went through highly underwhelming 2020 season’s and kicking off 2021 with three points could mean a ton. For Miami, making DRV PNK Stadium a “fortress” is undoubtedly a priority. And for LA, improving on last season’s sub-par away game record (2-2-5) is theirs.

How Miami Will Lineup

The expectations of Phil Neville in this first game, and his entire first season, are massive. Before landing the Inter Miami job, his coaching resume was well short of what his predecessor, Diego Alonso’s, was. With that said, it doesn’t mean Neville isn’t the man for the job. He knows what he wants to do in terms of his formation and tactics and will try to get the most out of his players.

We’ll likely see a 4-3-3 formation in today’s match, with Pizarro, Matuidi, and Gregore handling the midfield roles. As confirmed by Jorge Mas, John McCarthy will start in between the sticks, playing in front of a backline that’ll likely consist of Joevin Jones, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Nico Figal, and Kelvin Leerdam.

And up top, expect a front three of Robbie Robinson, Gonzalo Higuain, and Lewis Morgan.

Neville spoke highly of LA Galaxy striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez before today’s, catch and I’m sure the emphasis on both center-backs, LGP and Figal, will be to limit his chances and be disciplined in and around the box when he’s on the ball.

The midfield three is looking solid. Expect Gregore to be that protector of the backline who looks to connect play from back to front, and Matuidi to play just ahead of him as a box-to-box midfielder. The Gregore signing is massive, considering Miami went without a true center-defensive-mid all of last season. Gregore will get stuck in, make tackles, close down balls early, and relieve Matuidi of a lot of pressure.

Pizarro’s role will be to play as a number 1o. Neville wants his best players on the ball as they’ll look to dominate possession and control the tempo of the game. Pizarro will have to look to provide the front three, especially Higuain, a ton of service in order to create chances and tire out this Galaxy defense.

As for Lewis Morgan, his role will be different from what it was last season under Alonso. Our 2020 MVP won’t just be asked to run down the wing and whip in crosses. Morgan will whip in crosses, sure, but look for him to be taking on defenders more one on one, centrally. Neville wants Morgan on the ball just as much as he wants Pizarro on the ball; they’re the playmakers of this roster. Morgan is in for a better season than his MVP one last year, so lookout.

And then there’s the question of Robbie Robinson. The number one SuperDraft pick in 2020 had a rough season, especially as our striker. With Higuain coming in and Pellegrini off to Fort Lauderdale CF, Neville has looked to convert Robbie into a winger. His time at Clemson saw him playing all over one of the best front three’s NCAA soccer has ever seen. If Neville has coached him well enough, he could be very serviceable for Miami in a wing role.

Game Prediction

LA Galaxy has lost a lot of quality from last year to this. Miami should control the midfield battle and possession, and the chances should come off of that. If the Herons can hold down Chicharito and be efficient in their own final third, Miami could come out with a multiple-goal win.

I’m going with a 3-1 Inter Miami win.

Projecting Inter Miami’s Defensive Plans

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:

Wing-Back Additions

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.

shawcross injury

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.

Inter Miami

Five Reasons to be Excited about Inter Miami (1/5)

Inter Miami return to MLS action on August 22 against in-state rivals Orlando City. For each day leading up to the game, I’ll be going into detail explaining one of my five reasons to be excited about Inter Miami.  These five reasons, and dates of all and each coming piece, are listed below:

Reasons to be Excited About Inter Miami

  1. New Signings (August 17)
  2. Return of Robbie? (August 18)
  3. Playing with More Experience (August 19)
  4. Potential Acquisitions (August 20)
  5. First Home Game (August 21)

Matchday will feature a pre and post-game piece as well.

New Signings

Suddenly and surprisingly, Inter Miami went out and acquired Blaise Matuidi. At 33 years old, Matuidi instantly fills in a hole in the midfield that Inter Miami struggled with in the recent Orlando tournament.

Matuidi’s role over the last couple of years has varied in terms of position. As a left-back, left midfielder, and primarily a center defensive midfielder, Matuidi proved to both Juventus and the French National team he’s a vital asset to any cup winning side. At the world cup in 2018, Didier Deschamps used Matuidi on the left side of the field the entire tournament. He played in five of the seven tournament games, started in four which included the final, that of which they won.

His qualities are more focused on winning the ball in the midfield Diego Alonso will likely use him in this way. Alonso’s formations vary between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3. Both would cater to a player like Matuidi as he’s capable of being a ball winner, but also connecting play between the center backs and any attacking players. The French National team did use a 4-2-3-1 in which Matuidi played a left mid role, but with players like N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba, the midfield being locked down wasn’t in much trouble. Victor Ulloa and Wil Trapp were not of much help at any point in the Orlando tournament for Miami’s midfield, and oftentimes Rodolfo Pizarro was having to trackback. To relieve Pizarro of these duties is exactly what Matuidi will likely do. With Pizarro getting to focus more on creating while relying on Matuidi midfield to win the ball, hopefully, more chances are created.

Before the tournament, Inter Miami also announced the signing of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez from Club Tijuana of Mexico. Another major issue with Miami’s tournament games had been individual mistakes and “shakiness” at the back.

Pirez has a tremendous MLS resume at just 28 years old. Before leaving for Tijuana, he was named an MLS All-Star for the first time in 2019. Pirez also won the MLS Cup with Atlanta in 2018, one of the best teams the league has ever seen and was fourth in voting for MLS Defender of the year in 2017 and 2018. Pirez was the anchor for Atlanta United’s over the three years he was with them, having started every game he appeared in, even all 5 playoff matches that led them to MLS glory.

Miami’s defense, which is led by Nicolas Figal at the moment, hasn’t been too promising. Alonso has switched between both a three-back and four-back formation, but both have led to massive slip-ups. Bringing in Pirez will give Alonso solid starting quality which the team desperately needs. Looking at three in the back with Pirez included, he’d likely see himself playing alongside Figal and Andre Reyes. Figal is an aggressor and enforcer who likes to get up the pitch at times, and a player like Pirez would be able to allow this to happen as he is so solid defensively. The wing-backs have also struggled massively in this formation, mostly on the left side. Pirez like Figal is also a dominant physical presence that may have opposing sides struggle with their attacking play.

Matuidi and Pirez are set to make instant improvements to the Miami side. We will likely see Pirez hit the field first as Matuidi is not set for an appearance for a couple of weeks.

Look for tomorrow’s piece on the potential return of our striker Robbie Robinson.

 

 

SFCBL title means bragging rights among Florida Atlantic players

In the SFCBL, South Florida Collegiate Baseball League, Owls of a feather compete together.

That’s the summer vibe for a handful of Florida Atlantic players who are competing with each other for the SFCBL title the ultimate prize that comes with it.

“I would like to hold bragging rights over my other teammates,” said FAU infielder Jared DeSantolo, who plays for the North Division leading Palm Beach Diamond Ducks.

Most of the 2020 FAU roster has been spread out throughout the league.

FAU Owls at SFCBL

DeSantolo has company within the Diamond Ducks in pitchers Jackson Vescelus and Adrien Reese, who pitched four shutout innings against the Boyton Beach Buccaneers on Tuesday while striking out seven. The Phipps Park Barracudas (pitcher Michael Schumer, infielder Cade Parker and outfielder Victor Castillo) is tied with the Diamond Ducks with having the most Owls players.

The South Division leading West Boca Snappers have two Owls in catcher Nick Toney and shortstop Wilfredo Alvarez. The Fort Lauderdale Knights (outfielder Mitch Hartiga), the Delray Beach Lightning (outfielder Jackson Wenstorm), the Florida Pokers (pitcher Dante Visconti) and the Pompano Beach Clippers (infielder BJ Murray) each have one Owl.

The Buccaneers have three incoming FAU freshmen on their team. Chief among the trio is infielder Nolan Schanuel, who went 2-for-3 against the Diamond Ducks to raise his batting average to .300.

“It’s exciting to watch the kids we got coming in and what they can do,” DeSantolo said. “It’s good to get to know them before we get to school.”

The stories that come from playing against each other have been bountiful. A game between the Pokers and Barracudas pitted roommates Visconti, Parker and Castillo against each other.

“[Visconti] struck me out the first time and teased me for a whole week and then I told him the next time I faced him I was going to get a hit and the next week he through against me and I got a hit. We laughed about it for a while,” Castillo said. “We give him a hard time because he plays like he’s the best guy out there but we love it. He competed and makes us compete.”

“We have fun when we meet each other outside of the game,” Parker said. “We talk about our competition and it’s fun to get a couple hits off your buddy.”

“I actually faced my roommate Jared DeSantolo the other day and drilled him on my last pitch,” Hartigan said. “It’s interesting that we get to compete against each other.”

FAU Baseball in 2020

DeSantolo finds it a little weird to go from competing with FAU teammates to against them in the same year but it’s not something he’s no used to.

“We’re used to it because we do it in intersquads almost every day in the fall,” DeSantolo said, “so it kind of gets back to that feel of fall ball.

The Owls finished the 2019 season 41-21 in the Athens Regional. The Owls were 10-6 before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. DeSantolo and other players are appreciative about getting to play during this time of crisis. The summer season doesn’t make up for the lost spring.

“Nothing makes up for losing basically a whole year of college ball,” DeSantolo said. “But they gave us back our eligibility back, which is cool. I’m excited for next year. I think we’re going to have a really good team, even better than last year.”