What a difference a year makes.
Back in 2016 with the spring season of the NASL drawing to a close, The Miami FC were struggling. Porous at the back and mis-firing up front, the promise the franchise showed off the pitch had not been fulfilled. They finished 11th of 11 and deserved no more than that.
Fast-forward 12 months and Alessandro Nesta’s men are playing scintillating soccer, marauding their way to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals and trouncing teams by four goals… seven goals even, while also keeping clean sheets. So what has changed? In truth, it’s not been a revolution but an evolution.
It was a difficult winter for the NASL and with the league contracting to eight teams it has made it easier for Miami to dominate. Last season’s Soccer Bowl finalists have also struggled. Indy Eleven look very shaky on the field and the New York Cosmos should just be happy to be on it.
But it’s too facile to say that there is no competition. The San Francisco Deltas and Jacksonville Armada still pushed Miami until the final stretch. Let’s look at some of the things Miami has done right.
Towards the end of the 2016 season there were major changes in the team’s front office. New faces who understood how to run a sports franchise in Miami came in and the leadership off the field has provided a nice foundation for the technical side of things.
Looking back at the squad that started 2016, the 2017 roster is much improved. Key additions in the offseason have been midfielder Dylan Mares and forward Stefano Pinho. It speaks volumes about Mares’s performances that he is now keeping fan favorite Ariel Martinez out of the side. Nesta has a very fixed game plan in mind. A 4-1-2-1-2 formation that is quite narrow with the width being provided by the fullbacks.
Mares fits perfectly as the left-sided midfielder, just in front of the mercurial Richie Ryan and alongside the dynamic Michael Lahoud. Nesta likes to play with players in triangles all over the pitch and this central midfield three have been nothing short of sensational. Controlling games by winning back possession and retaining it. Mares likes to get forward, Lahoud has a great all-round game and has created some brilliant goals. A whole article could be written on Ryan, a player with a wonderful range of passing.
So the midfield has been bolstered and has a nice chemistry. And talking of chemistry, the players linking up down the left side of the team have made quite an impact. Mares has Pinho in front of him, a proven goalscorer at this level who has done well since arriving. Behind them, the explosive Robert Baggio Kcira was playing very well until his season-ending injury and Blake Smith is a superb alternative. Those two players had a nice rotation going with two very different styles: Baggio preferring to cut in and shoot, Smith preferring to get to the goal line and deliver crosses.
And of course there is Vincenzo Rennella. The talismanic forward was a major boost to Miami’s chances. He can create goals and score them and it’s clear he gives a lift to the players around him.
So by identifying the key areas of the team that needed improving and consolidating, Nesta has done very well. He has a clear philosophy of the soccer he wants to play and this season from day one he’s had the right pegs in the right holes. Miami do have resources that other NASL teams cast envious looks at, but they have dominated the spring season and Nesta must take some credit for that.
There are still things to improve on. The recent defeat to North Carolina FC shows that the team lacks a Plan B and there is no worthy understudy to Kwadwo Poku. Nesta still needs to show some tactical flexibility. The Cosmos came to town with a very effective gameplan to nullify Miami’s central midfielders and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the NASL cottons on to that.
But if the team continues to strengthen on and off the pitch, the sky is the limit. Gone is the timid, inconsistent Miami of 2016. Sensible decisions have made them Kings of Florida, NASL Spring Season champs and a U.S. Open Cup powerhouse.
Long may it continue.