Finally, after seven long years of interrupted dreams, David Beckham and a national T.V. audience got a taste of what Major League Soccer can look, feel and sound like in South Florida.
Dressed in tailored suits, despite the sweltering 90-degree heat, surrounded by family and celebrity friends, Beckham and Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas watched from the front row of DRV PNK Stadium as their revamped team dominated the first 70 minutes but fell short 3-2 to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the season opener.
Although just 8,000 fans were permitted in the 18,000-seat stadium, per COVID restrictions, the atmosphere was electric. Most of the stadium had socially distanced seating, but the diehard supporter groups packed the north stands and made enough noise to make up for all the empty seats.
They never stopped singing, mostly in Spanish. They banged drums. They set off pink smoke bombs. Soaking it all in from across the stadium were celebrity fans Tom Brady, Marc Anthony, Pharrell Williams and Liv Tyler, who showed up to support Beckham.
“The supporters were great,” said Inter Miami coach Phil Neville, who was making his debut after being hired in January. “When we’ve been without supporters for so long, I think we forget how important these people are not just to your football club, but to the whole of football. Having our supporters here, an incredible atmosphere, the intensity was incredible especially considering the temperature. From an emotional and occasion point of view this was everything and more than I wanted and expected.
“I loved every single minute of it apart from the result…We dominated but came away with no points.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber, who flew in for the game, was overwhelmed by the spirit of the fans.
“I was with someone who had never been to an MLS game and said, `There is no sport in North America that has fans like that’, that can create a passionate environment, bang drums and I think capture the heart and soul of this city,” Garber said. “This city is about connecting different ethnic groups and this team can serve as the link for so many positive things in Miami, a city that is exploding.”
Inter Miami fans had plenty to celebrate for the first two thirds of the game before fatigue set in and the Galaxy added a second forward to increase scoring chances.
Robbie Robinson, last year’s No. 1 MLS Draft pick, scored the first goal of his professional career just before the halftime to give Inter Miami a 1-0 lead. Marc Anthony’s song “Vivir My Vida” blared through the speakers as fans sang “Voy a reir, voy a bailar (I will laugh, I will dance), la, la, la, la”.
Robinson slotted in a close-range cross-goal pass from Argentine star Gonzalo Higuain, who was one-one-one with Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond but chose the unselfish pass rather than taking the shot himself. The play started with Rodolfo Pizarro, who stole the ball and delivered it to unmarked Higuain. Pizarro was active on and off the ball until he tired and was replaced in the 83rd minute.
“It is always team over individual,” Higuain said. “Robbie was in better position than me.”
Higuain and Robinson embraced after the goal.
“We’ve been working so hard with Robbie,” Neville said. “The boy’s got big potential. He’s gaining confidence. He’s got the belief of me, the trust and love from his teammates and that’s really important. You could see a player that can go from strength to strength, and we’re really pleased with his progress.
“This is just the start of something that could be really, really special for him if he really, really wants it as much as we want it for him.”
The two teams Sunday mirrored each other in many ways.
Both are big-city clubs that underperformed last season. Both made coaching changes. Both had international stars who fell short of expectations – Higuain for Miami and Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez for L.A.
And, both teams are dear to Beckham. He played for the Galaxy, and he co-owns Miami.
Higuain and Chicharito redeemed themselves on Sunday. Both scored the same number of goals they scored all last season.
Chicharito scored the equalizer in the 62nd minute, Higuain gave Miami a 2-1 lead with a 68th minute penalty kick, Chicharito then tied it up again with a goal in the 73rd minute. Sacha Kljestan scored the game-winner for L.A. in the 81st minute.
Neville praised Higuain’s unselfishness and Chicharito’s opportunism.
“That is Chicharito,” Neville said. “That’s what we saw all the time he was at Manchester United. The minute he comes into the box, he knows where the ball will bounce or drop, and you cannot switch off. We got punished.”
After the game, Chicharito dedicated the two goals to his late-grandfather, Mexican legend Balcazar, who died in last April.
“No one has any idea how tough this year and a half has been for me…to gain confidence with the owners, my teammates. I’m holding my tears. I lost my grandfather. These goals are for him. I miss him so much.”
Note: Garber said “there will be sanctions” against Inter Miami for breaking MLS roster rules in signing Blaise Matuidi last summer, and they will be announced this week. “The integrity of our rules is sacrosanct. It doesn’t matter what market you’re in, who owns your team or who’s running it, or who the general manager is. You have to play by the same rules.”
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