Inter Miami coach Diego Alonso, who has suffered through many disappointing, frustrating results this season, ran up and down the sideline roaring with joy on Saturday, pumping his fists, and hugging everyone in sight.
He had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Inter Miami, playing its first game in front of a limited number of season ticket holders, gave the small but spirited crowd of 2,216 exactly what it came for, a thrilling 2-1 victory over favored Orlando City. The win moved Miami into a playoff spot – for now.
The game-winning goal came in the 89th minute, off the head of Argentine defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, wearing the captain’s armband in place of suspended star forward and countryman Gonzalo Higuain, who was not allowed at the stadium after receiving a red card in the previous game.
Midfielder Lewis Morgan delivered the corner kick that led to Gonzalez-Pirez’s goal.
“Right when I got into the box, I looked up and I said, `Please, this has to be for us,’’’ Gonzalez Pirez said, smiling after the game. “Then Lewis Morgan sent in a perfect kick, and I just found space and was able to get it in.”
Miami’s first goal came just before halftime, on a Blaise Matuidi shot that ricocheted off Orlando City defender Robin Jansson.
With the win, Miami jumped from 12th place to 10th in the Eastern Conference standings and into the final playoff spot with 21 points and three regular-season games remaining. Chicago, with 20 points, could leapfrog Miami with a victory over the New York Red Bulls Saturday night.
“I am very happy that I could score, that’s very nice for any player, but it was extra special to do it in the stadium with people, who fired us up, energized us, and to do it against Orlando, a state rival, in the final minutes,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “I am most happy for the group. We fought the full 90 minutes, and I think we were the justified winners. This time, finally, we had luck on our side and got the win.”
The energy at Inter Miami Stadium in Fort Lauderdale was palpable an hour before kickoff on Saturday afternoon, as a long line of cars pulled into the parking lot for the first time all season.
Inter Miami season ticket holders were permitted to purchase tickets for a reduced capacity stadium (full capacity is 18,000). Fans were spaced out in groups of no more than four (although the supporters groups in the North stands partied a little closer together). Most fans wore masks. It was the largest home crowd since the coronavirus pandemic shut the stadium in mid-March, two days before team’s inaugural home game.
“The fans were the 12th man for us,” said Alonso. “They pushed us the whole time. We felt like the home team for the first time. It was an incredible experience. I’m very happy to get this win and dedicate it to the fans.”
One of the biggest plays of the game came in the 88th minute, when Miami goalkeeper John McCarthy, starting his fourth game in place of injured captain Luis Robles, made a spectacular save on a close-range shot by Orlando’s Tesho Akindele. The fans gave him a standing ovation after the play.
McCarthy said afterward that he though he had messed up, but then his instincts kicked in.
“It was a reaction thing, I saw the Orlando guy in front of me and tried to make myself as big as possible,” McCarthy said. “Once I made the save, I was like, `Holy s-it!”
“John has had very good performances, has worked very hard to get to this point, and it showed in that play,” Alonso said. “He didn’t let them score, it allowed us to stay in the match, and the reward came in the end. I’m very happy for him and the whole team.
Fired up by the fans’ drums and chants – and the return of electric playmaker Rodolfo Pizarro -- Inter Miami played some of its best soccer of the season.
Orlando City rookie Daryl Dike, the No. 5 draft pick from University of Virginia, got the visitors on the scoreboard in the 12th minute after collecting a perfect long through ball from Antonio Carlos, maneuvering past Miami defender Nico Figal, and very calmly left-footing in a shot.
Julian Carranza, the young Argentine who started at forward in place of Higuain, nearly made it 2-1 in the 53rd minute, but his close-range header hit the frame. Figal missed to the left on a header a few minutes earlier to the right on a previous shot.
Morgan provided the crosses on all three shots.
The Miami win ended Orlando’s 12-game unbeaten streak, which began after a 3-2 loss to Miami in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 22.
It was the fourth time the teams played this season. Orlando won twice, and Miami won once, 3-2 at home on Aug. 22. Orlando sits in fourth place in the East with an 8-3-8 record and 32 points. Miami improved to 6-11-3 and plays on the road Wednesday at FC Dallas.