Anticipation builds for Inter Miami’s MLS tournament opener

It was March 12. There had been only two matches in team history when it happened. There was an impressive 1-0 loss to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC, then a 2-1 fall in a nail-biter to DC United. But no training session or early season match prepared Inter Miami CF for what followed: the suspension of the MLS season.

The pandemic put a pause on life as we know it and it made no exception when it came to sports. Oddly enough, it happened hours before Inter Miami’s home opener match in their Fort Lauderdale stadium.

But Inter Miami is getting another chance. This time it’s for the MLS Is Back Tournament. The team will play the tournament’s inaugural match against Orlando City SC on July 8 at 8 p.m. at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Both teams arrive with 0-2 records. Inter Miami holds the 12th position in the Eastern Conference. Likely starting at forward will be Rodolfo Pizarro, who scored the first and only goal in the team’s history.

Inter Miami is a young and eager squad. This inaugural match will likely set the stage for a long-running rivalry. Inter Miami midfielder Wil Trapp spoke during an MLS virtual press conference this past Friday about the team’s preparations.

“Diego and the staff have pushed us immensely, and we know that we’re prepared to win the game,” Trapp said. “It’ll be difficult of course, [Orlando City] is a team that offers interesting ways of attack and defense, and this has been taken into account.”

Inter Miami fans are also prepping. Though they won’t be able to attend, they will try to release the buildup of excitement from the home opener that never was.

Sebastian Moraga is a co-founder and communications manager for Vice City 1896, an Inter Miami fan club. Moraga grew up in upstate New York. When he moved to Miami in 2015, he knew it was time for him to get involved with this club.

Courtesy of Vice City 1896

Moraga says his club is filled with “‘Afusionados” — members of a fan club that supported Miami Fusion, another local soccer club, which ceased operation in 2002.

“We were a group of friends with a common interest,” Moraga says. “We would all barbecue together, have some beers and when Inter Miami was announced, we thought ‘one more thing added to our weekend.’ [Vice City] happened very organically.”

Courtesy of Vice City 1896

The Vice City communications manager says the season suspension before Inter Miami’s home opener was particularly difficult after years of waiting, especially for those Afusionados.

“For all of it to come to a raging halt one, two days before the opener, it was very heartbreaking,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘We’ve already waited 20 years, what’s another couple of months, you know?’”

Vice City had a lot planned for the home opener, but Moraga says members want to keep it a secret for when the official home opener comes around. Vice City members wanted to go Orlando to watch the tournament but realized it wasn’t the safest option due to coronavirus concerns.

“It’s been really tough to figure out how we can be involved at this moment,” he says. “But we’ve been working on showing the team that despite the pandemic, we’re still here for them.”

Moraga says fútbol lovers are ecstatic about the match against Orlando City, not only because of the long pause but due to the rivalry.

Ed Serrano, known as Uncle Ed, is one of the founders of the Southern Legion fan group, the original Inter Miami supporter group. Serrano remembers the Fusion.

“Many of us felt robbed of our team,” explains Serrano. “There were many years of soccer limbo. But I always felt MLS had to return.”

The Southern Legion founder says he and Southern Legion president Julio Caballero long ago began an email campaign to push MLS Commissioner Don Garber to bring the MLS to South Florida.

“We wanted [Commissioner Garber] to know that MLS would never be complete without a team in South Florida,” Serrano says. “We bugged him so much that he agreed to meet with us in Fort Lauderdale.”

Garber told members of Serrano’s group they needed to attract investors to bring an MLS team to South Florida. After several failed attempts, the group got a response from entrepreneur Marcelo Claure, now one of the Inter Miami CF majority owners, whom Serrano considers the “mastermind behind it all.”

For Serrano, Inter Miami is a dream come true, and soccer a way of life. His group of supporters pushed for a team that didn’t exist, but that they wanted “with all their hearts.” Serrano says Southern Legion had so much planned for the home opener.

“We were so close to seeing them in our own stadium,” he says. “I don’t want to give it away because we still have to do it, but expect a lot of fun, passion and above all, heart.”

Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Monica is working on her broadcast journalism bachelor's degree. She loves to write and is passionate about sports, the art of interviewing and strives to become an on-air sports talent. She produces digital content and is a social media manager.