The biggest question The Miami FC had to answer coming into the 2017 campaign was “Can this defense hold up?” Boy, have they ever held up their end of the bargain. After allowing 42 goals in 2016, the backline has found the chemistry necessary to shut opponents down. Through 16 league games, the boys at the back have only allowed 11 goals and have helped Mario Daniel Vega hold seven clean sheets. In an extra four games of U.S. Open Cup play, Miami has allowed five goals while keeping a clean sheet against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Let’s take a look at this part of the team’s season so far and their best moments.
Hunter Freeman: The late-season acquisition of Hunter Freeman in 2016 rang some bells around the league. Miami was going for the NASL fall title and they would spare no expense in doing it. Alas, Miami fell short but found their premiere right back in that deal. Hunter Freeman has been excellent holding down the right flank for Miami playing EVERY minute of EVERY game. With 57 clearances, 20 interceptions, and 11 blocks Freeman has caused problems for teams trying to come down Miami’s right side. On the attacking front, Freeman is a usual set-piece taker and has chipped in two key assists on the season (4 total), both in Open Cup play.
Mason Trafford: Locking down the middle of the backline has been Trafford’s specialty along with usual partner Rhett Bernstein. The 56 Clearances, 22 interceptions, and 2 blocks are a good reason why Miami has given up very few goals this season. Winning 100 percent of his tackles, Trafford has been there to break up key plays time and time again. Think that’s all he brings? The Boynton Beach native is the link between the midfield and Vega with 969 total passes (4th in league play).
Rhett Bernstein: Although he was hobbled early in the year with an injury, Bernstein has been a wall in the center along with partner Trafford. With 54 Clearances, 28 interceptions, and 10 blocks, this is another reason why Mario Daniel Vega has looked so comfortable all season between the pipes. In what can be described as the league’s best defensive duo, the combined numbers are second to none. Did we mention Bernstein can score? At 6 feet, 1 inch, Bernstein isn’t the tallest centerback in the league, but he finds a way to get his head on the ball. Let’s take a look at the second goal of the Atlanta United match.
Robert Baggio Kcira: We got a chance to talk to Kcira early in the preseason. While not featured often in 2016, he locked down the starting 2017 left-back role after Blake Smith got hurt in the preseason. Essentially daring Nesta to take him off the field, Kcira locked down players like Walter Restrepo (New York Cosmos), Darwin Jones (Rowdies), and Orlando City’s entire right hand side. In ten games before going down with a season ending knee injury, Kcira contributed two goals and an assist as an offensive threat behind Dylan Mares on the left flank. His best offensive moment? This weak-footed shot through five Indy Eleven defenders to find the back of the net.
Blake Smith: Smith brings a different dynamic to the game than Kcira. In a perfect world you could rotate these two against offensive and defensive opponents. Need an attacking wing back? Call on Kcira. Need a stay at home left back that can run for days and whip in crosses from all angles? Smith is your man. With 38 recoveries and a 91 percent passing rate, Smith made his statement in Miami’s first Open Cup match. Earning his first start on the year, Smith put South Florida Surf defenders on skates all night. His pace and agility was no match for the PDL side as he earned two assists (4 total) in that fixture. His fourth assist of the season essentially secured the spring season title for Miami in the match against the Deltas.
Mario Daniel Vega: Vega was one of the most reliable keepers in the NASL last season. So reliable that rumors were spread on social media about a possible MLS team making inquiries of his availability. Place a second-year defense in front of him with no chemistry issues; now you have one of North America’s premiere keepers. Among regular starters, Vega leads the NASL with a .69 goals against average, seven shutouts, and 11 wins. Vega hasn’t faced many shots this season. However, what has lacked in quantity has been made up for in quality. Most of Vega’s saves this season have been crucial in order to keep games in reach or under control.