Inter Miami’s season may be on the line against Atlanta (includes multimedia content)

With a 0-0 draw looming in the 90th minute in the FC Cincinnati-Inter Miami game earlier this month, a long cross falls to winger Brek Shea running down the left side. One calm touch followed by a cool-and-collected shot to the far post eludes the goalie and changes the game’s trajectory and, possibly, Inter Miami’s whole season.

Two games later, with another 0-0 draw looming against a vulnerable Toronto FC team, down to 10 men, an unlikely hero emerges. Christian Makoun, who struggled to find a role early in the season, bursts into the box, drawing a foul and a penalty late in stoppage time. Rather than defer to an established penalty taker, the central defender confidently scores the penalty kick himself and wins the game for Inter Miami, taking the team into a playoff spot for the first time.

Recently though, the team’s momentum came to a screeching halt with two consecutive losses. Tonight, September 29, it faces fellow playoff contender Atlanta United at 7 p.m. in Atlanta. And it figures to be the team’s most important game of the season so far.

Prior to the two losses, both by a humiliating four goals to the New York Red Bulls and then to Nashville, the team had been on a roll. But just how did things improve in the first place? Coach Phil Neville recently changed his formation from a four-at-the-back system to a new three-at-the-back system.

Despite the recent downturn, Inter Miami’s form boosted its chances of a playoff spot over the last month. The team currently sits in 10th place, much improved from last year’s 14th, and has played one less game than its opponents. The team briefly moved into a playoff spot but now faces another uphill battle to reach the playoffs.

Over the team’s first 15 games, it accumulated just 13 points, an average of just .86 points per match. Then the team switched formations. In the next seven matches, it equaled those 13 points, averaging over 1.85 points per game. In their last three, that number has dropped to just one point a game.

The new system invigorated the team and produced better results. It will need that same spark to beat Atlanta United and challenge for a playoff spot. Below you can see the transition from defense to attack in the old 4-2-3-1 formation, a much slower system with less room for players to push forward.

In the old setup, the fullbacks had more responsibility to defend, giving them less license to push forward and join the attack. In this old formation, the wide attackers had to hold the width in the attack. The fullbacks were unable to push up without leaving the team vulnerable to a potential counterattack.

“The 4-2-3-1 system didn’t use the wingbacks enough in attack as it does with true wingbacks in a five-at-the-back system, and the center backs don’t have an extra body to rely on if they’re to go forward,” said Austin Robillard of Five Reasons Sports Network.

Recently, the team has changed to a three-at-the-back. In their first seven games after changing their setup, the team’s only loss came against New York City when a more defensive 4-3-3 formation was used. (They have lost two of their last three since, however.) Below, you can see the three-at-the-back formation and how it transitions from defense to attack.

On the attack in the current system, the wing fullbacks push forward and leave the center backs to cover defensive duties. With the fullbacks pushing up like wingers, the attacking midfielders, normally Robbie Robinson and Rodolfo Pizarro, can push infield and play behind Gonzalo Higuain. This allows for easier service into the box, whether from a cross or a pass to the midfielders.

After playing for some of the best clubs in the world, Higuain is still adjusting to playing in the MLS, but his goals are crucial to the team’s success (photo by Leandro Ceruti via Wikimedia Commons)
“The new formation has definitely helped the team out,” said Sebastian Moraga, a member of Vice City 1896, an Inter Miami supporters group. “It has benefitted our ability to attack [because] we don’t get trapped with the ball in our defensive third as much… we have a more fluid transition from the defenders to the attack.”

The attack has become more fluid with the introduction of this new system and that can be seen with the expected goals (xG) the team has produced since the switch.

Over the first 15 games, the team accumulated just less than one xG per game. Under the new system, they produced about 1.1 xG per game in their next seven.

One reason for this improvement is the more direct attacking approach incorporated. “The attack has been revamped due to the new wingback roles on both sides and the combination play along with a lot of direct style balls from the center backs has really created the success,” said Robillard. “I think the players get a lot more freedom now than they used to, and it’s freedom that doesn’t become a detriment to the team.”

This improvement has led to more goals, with the team scoring 10 goals over the next seven matches following their dreadful start 15 games in, an average of 1.4 goals per match. Previously, the team was averaging .8 goals a match. With a staggering 75% more goals a match, it’s clear to see the new approach is working, and the team will need that success to continue.

The team starting to show some cracks when missing any players it’s a testament to their cohesion as a unit, but a detriment if just one of their preferred 11 misses a match. Recently, that has been the issue as struggles have coincided with players missing games. The team struggled against Toronto without Higuain, lost after going down to 10 men when Nicolas Figal was sent off against New York Red Bulls and lost to Nashville with Figal and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez serving suspensions.
World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi has proven himself a huge contributor in Inter Miami’s midfield since signing from Juventus (Photo by Антон Зайцев via Wikimedia Commons)

If the team is going to overcome Atlanta United, it will need to learn how to win with different contributors as captain Gregore is set to miss the match due to a suspension for yellow card accumulation. The team will receive a boost with Figal and Gonzalez-Pirez returning from suspension, allowing the back three to be familiar and comfortable in an important game. This game will tell what kind of team Inter Miami really is, especially if the players can prove that they can stop one of the MLS’ best goalscorers in Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez.

Inter Miami has shown itself to be a resilient side, winning multiple games in the 90th minute or deep in stoppage time. “The team seems to believe in each other more,” said Moraga. “There is more connection between the team, the fans, and the goal that they are all fighting for… plus the supporter section has been huge for winning games at home in the final minutes.”

With nine matches remaining, Inter Miami has crashed the playoff race where they seemed unwelcome as recently as August. With team spirit, form and the fans behind them, Inter Miami seemed poised to make a playoff push in just their second season in MLS. But they will need to get past Atlanta United if they want to keep those hopes alive.

Michael Morales is an FIU student majoring in journalism. He has an immense passion for sports and aspires to be a sports writer and podcast host.