On Monday morning, Inter Miami announced that Phil Neville would step down from his role as manager of the England women’s team to take the helm at the Major League Soccer club. Co-owned by Neville’s former teammate David Beckham, the club played their first season in MLS amid the tumultuous backdrop of 2020, and will hope Neville can turn the team into a force to be reckoned with in the seemingly ever-expanding league.
In his first statement as Miami manager, Neville described Inter as a “very young club with a lot of promise and upside”. But if he expects his new job to be all beach days and sunshine, he is in for a shock.
Neville steps into a tricky role leading a team that failed to impress in their debut season. Despite Miami’s star-powered ownership group, they only just squeaked into the recently expanded MLS playoffs – 18 of the league’s 26 teams qualified – and were subsequently eliminated in short order in their preliminary match.
Neville’s first problem will be solving the team’s scoring issues. None of their players scored more than five goals in 2020, something that helps explain why Miami finished 10th out of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference.
That’s not to say the team is devoid of talent: the roster is stocked with veteran MLS players who have a long track record of success in the league, including US international Wil Trapp. But Miami failed to play cohesively in 2020. They brought in the former Real Madrid and Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuaín in the middle of last season. He definitely had an immediate impact: he missed a penalty and started a fight on his debut, and went on to score just once in nine games.
Higuaín remains in Miami for the 2021 season, but the team’s most promising attacking option in 2020 was the former Celtic winger Lewis Morgan, who will look to improve on his tally of five goals and five assists in the last campaign.
However it is away from the pitch that Inter Miami face the biggest challenges. A large part of MLS’s decision to award the club a place in the league was the promise of a downtown stadium in the heart of one of America’s most vibrant cities – a location that could bring publicity and glamor to a competition that still struggles for a place in the limelight alongside the giants of the NFL and NBA.
Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned. It took years of legal wrangling and glad-handing – boosted by Beckham’s superstar status – before Miami were able to secure a 131-acre site that will host a sprawling stadium and commercial complex. Unfortunately, in 2019 soil at the site was found to contain twice the legal limit of arsenic. The stadium is still expected to be finished by 2022, but for now the team plays 30 miles north of downtown Miami, in Fort Lauderdale.
But once they do move into their new 25,000-seat stadium next year, attracting and retaining fans may be a problem. The club has made much of Miami’s huge Latino community, but many of them are Cuban-Americans, who prefer baseball to soccer. And MLS has been in the area before: the Miami Fusion played from 1998-2001 before poor ticket sales and sparse crowds ended their time in the league. Inter Miami will argue that Fusion were around when soccer was less popular in the States and they played out in Fort Lauderdale, nevertheless the club’s ghost hovers in the background.
Hopefully Miami’s downtown stadium will attract fans, but the city’s professional sports teams have long struggled to pull in crowds. Miami’s Major League Baseball team, the Marlins, also have a downtown stadium and play a sport popular with Latinos … and they had the lowest average attendance in the major leagues in 2018 and 2019. Support for the NBA’s Heat remained solid pre-pandemic, but the Dolphins usually finish in the bottom half of the NFL’s attendance league table.
So, Neville’s first few seasons will be especially crucial as the club looks to establish itself in south Florida. As Inter Miami’s novelty fades, results on the field will come to matter more and more in keeping fans interested and attendance high. Miami sports teams have long struggled against the perception that they rely on bandwagon fans, and wrongly or rightly Inter’s success now will set the tone for their entire opening era. Whether they come to be considered an also-ran in a city where potential supporters can find countless other ways to spend a Saturday night, or go on to become one of the dominant clubs in MLS and an intrinsic part of the city’s culture.
Neville’s history with Beckham as both a teammate with Manchester United and England, as well as their co-ownership of the League Two side Salford City, made him a long-rumored fit for his new role in Miami. In the statement confirming the move, Beckham said of Neville: “I know his qualities as a person, his decency, loyalty and honesty – and his incredible energy and work ethic. Anyone who has played or worked with Phil knows he is a natural leader, and I believe now is the right time for him to join.”
He will need all those qualities as he settles into life in Miami.