Playoff spot on line as depleted Inter Miami faces big road test vs. Toronto FC Sunday

Michelle Kaufman
·4 min read

Nothing has come easy for Inter Miami during its inaugural season, and another major hurdle awaits Sunday night with a road game against Toronto FC, one of the top teams in Major League Soccer.

With two games remaining in the regular season, Miami is clinging to postseason dreams, in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-12-3 record and 21 points. The top 10 advance to the playoffs.

Toronto, meanwhile, is in second place in the conference with 41 points, although the team has been thinned by injuries and is coming off back-to-back losses, a 1-0 loss to New York City FC and a 5-0 thumping by first-place Philadelphia.

The Reds have been missing U.S. national team star Jozy Altidore, Argentine Pablo Piatti, and 20-year-old American Ayo Akinola, one of the top young players in MLS. Akinola may be back for the Miami game.

Toronto boast one of the league’s most potent offenses with 30 goals scored, which is bad news for Miami because it will be missing three starting defenders.

Nico Figal injured a muscle in his left leg during Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at FC Dallas and is out for several weeks, according to coach Diego Alonso. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Andres Reyes are suspended for yellow card accumulation.

They will likely be replaced by Dylan Nealis, A.J. De La Garza, and either Christian Makoun or Mikey Ambrose.

“Losing Nico is significant, we knew once it happened that he would not be able to play again in just four days,” said Alonso. “We will be missing key players, but we are confident in the players who will replace them. We had a similar situation to this when we played the New York Red Bulls, and the backup players did very well. We are still in the hunt, fighting for a playoff spot.”

To further complicate matters for Inter Miami, MLS announced on Thursday that it is changing its playoff qualification format because multiple clubs will finish the season without the full 23 scheduled matches due to COVID-19 game cancellations. As a result, qualification will be based on points earned per game, rather than just ranking teams by total points.

Under the new system, Miami slipped from 10th to 11th place. Miami, D.C. United and Chicago are tied at 21 points, but Chicago has a game in hand.

Sunday’s game (7:30 p.m., MyTV33) will be played in at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., which is where Toronto FC has had to play its recent home matches due to COVID-related travel restrictions between Canada and the United States. Up to 5,000 tickets (13 percent of normal 38,000 capacity) are on sale for the game.

“We are focused on Toronto, and only Toronto,” said Miami defender Ben Sweat. “We have to get a result. Whether that’s a win, or even a tie with one point, we have to get a result. I don’t think we want to leave it to the hands of other teams. If we get a result this game and then we’re at home (against Cincinnati Nov. 8). We dominate teams at home and I think if it comes down to getting a good result against Toronto, then we’ll win against Cincinnati at home.”

FC Cincinnati is in last place in the East with a 4-13-4 record and has scored only 11 goals all season while allowing 32.

Despite the late-season additions of former Juventus teammates Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuain, and many scoring chances created, Inter Miami’s offense has struggled to find the back of the net. The team has scored 22 goals over 21 games.

Only four of the 26 teams in the league have scored fewer goals than Miami this season.

Defensively, Miami has had a tendency to give up goals after taking the lead, which happened again against Dallas.

Despite those deficiencies, Matuidi remains optimistic that about the team’s playoff chances. As a veteran player who won the 2018 World Cup with the French national team, Matuidi said he and Higuain have been trying to offer advice to teammates on and off the field during this critical stretch.

“We have to look at the positive,” Matuidi said through an interpreter. “When I first got here we were going through a difficult moment as a team, but we have shifted and now we are controlling our destiny. Sunday is obviously a very important match. It will be a difficult match against a very, very good team. We have players missing but we know we have players who can step up and fill those roles.”

Note: The MLS Disciplinary Committee found Inter Miami in violation of the mass confrontation policy during the 57th minute of the loss to Dallas. Inter Miami has violated that rule twice this season, so the club and Alonso were fined an undisclosed amount.