Inter Miami was officially the home team Wednesday night, but it was CF Montreal, which has been based in Fort Lauderdale all season due to COVID-19 border restrictions, that looked most comfortable at DRV PNK Stadium in a 2-0 win interrupted by a two-and-a-half-hour lightning delay.
The Canadian team, clearly acclimated to its temporary “home” stadium and South Florida’s weather, dominated possession from the opening whistle, using speed and precision passing to create wide open spaces and scoring chances.
Meanwhile, Miami lost its shape, struggled to connect passes, and played its worst first half of the season.
“We’ve got to be really honest, we were beaten by the better team,” said Miami coach Phil Neville. “The first half was unacceptable from us all, myself included. I have to take responsibility as the manager…It’s hard to take. It’s the first time it’s happened this season. It’s a bit of a reality check for us all in terms of where we are and where we want to get to.
“There’s no moping around. You’ve got to move on as quickly as possible. Because if you wake tomorrow morning, still thinking about today, you’re wasting energy focusing on the negative rather than focusing on Cincinnati (Miami’s next opponent). We congratulate Montreal. They are the best team we played so far, and we are bitterly disappointed.”
Montreal exploited Miami’s weaknesses and led 2-0 after 25 minutes on a pair of goals by Norwegian-American forward Bjorn Johnsen, a towering figure at 6-5.
They were the first MLS goals for Johnsen, who plays on Norway’s national team. The first came in the 14th minute when he collected a perfect through ball from Djordje Mihailovic and left-footed it from the left side of the box past Miami keeper John McCarthy.
Johnson made it 2-0 in the 25th minute on a counterattack after Montreal’s Romell Quioto intercepted an errant pass by Miami defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and fed Johnson, who scored from close range.
Miami’s best scoring chance before intermission came from Brek Shea, who launched a shot from outside the penalty area, but it was saved by Montreal goalkeeper James Pantemis.
Neville said the biggest deficiency he saw from his team was its lack of compactness. “We lost our way, looked ragged in the first half,” he said. “That was most disappointing. We have to make sure there’s no gaps, make sure we’re winning our duels, and that we’re a tough team to beat and tonight we weren’t.”
He also suggested that maybe the team was a bit overconfident. “Sometimes football has a way of kicking you right where it hurts,” Neville said. “When you think you’re doing well, you think you are sometimes better than you are, football has a way of knocking you back down to the ground.
“We have to do the hard work and not get carried away with getting a draw against Atlanta, being on a three-game unbeaten run, thinking if we win we go atop the league. Subconsciously that can happen in life. Tonight was a bit of a reality check for all of us in the club, myself included.”
Neville went with the same Starting XI from Sunday’s 1-1 tie against Atlanta United: John McCarthy in goal. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Ryan Shawcross, Brek Shea along the back line. Lewis Morgan, Blaise Matuidi, Victor Ulloa, Jay Chapman, Gregore Silva in the midfield. Rodolfo Pizarro as playmaker and Gonzalo Higuain at center forward.
Neville said before the game that he had been wrestling with how to best utilize midfielder Federico Higuain, Gonzalo’s older brother. Federico, who is 36, has been spectacular off the bench, making an immediate impact each time he steps on the field.
Neville said he has considered starting the elder Higuain but decided to bring him in as a substitute against Montreal. Federico replaced Jay Chapman at the start of the second half.
“His impact off the bench has been that great, so why change that?,” Neville said before the game. “Rodolfo’s going away in a month or two with (the Mexican) national team to play, so there’s going to be lots of games for Federico, so we have to make sure we pick the right games, the right moments. I’m still in that mode of `Should we start him? Should we bring him on? Where’s his best influence?’”
Despite the long rain delay, many soggy fans stayed from the limited-capacity sellout crowd of 8,220. Among the famous faces in the crowd: co-owner David Beckham, French D.J.s David Guetta and Cedric Gervais, and heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, who posed for photos with fans during the lightning delay.
Bulgarian great Hristo Stoichkov, a former FC Barcelona star forward, was at the game as a commentator for Spanish-language TUDN.
Inter Miami (1-2-2) hits the road this weekend for a Sunday 4 p.m. game at FC Cincinnati.