As the team marched towards its long-awaited debut season, much of the discussion surrounding David Beckham's Inter Miami centered around what could be. This team could be a game-changer, one that could bring real glitz to the American soccer scene. It could spend big money, bring in big stars and, ultimately, compete with the best if everything went to plan.
But Inter Miami's debut season was hindered by a number of setbacks, some self-inflicted and some very much not in this very unique time we live in. As that season came to a close on Friday night, Inter Miami's first chapter will be better remembered for what it wasn't rather than for what it was.
It was a season that came to a crashing halt, ending at the hands of Miami's less-heralded expansion partner Nashville SC in a 3-0 battering. Inter Miami battled to earn a spot in the expanded Eastern Conference playoff picture as the 10th-place finisher but, by the time they got there, they looked a lot like a team that didn't belong.
The team's biggest star, Gonzalo Higuain, was absent, reportedly due to the coronavirus. So too was defensive leader Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and midfield addition, Gonzalo's brother Federico Higuain. Without them, Miami was toothless.
And so the season that began with so much hope ended with a whimper, never reaching anything close to the best-case-scenario many had envisioned.
"We feel hurt to be eliminated today and we feel ashamed for our fans because we weren't able to give them the qualification for the next round," head coach Diego Alonso said after the loss. "We had great support from them. They've been there in a very difficult year."
That "difficult year" part is certainly an understatement. Like every team out there, Inter Miami's 2020 season rapidly descended into chaos as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Plans were scuppered, a grand home debut was postponed, even if it eventually came in front of limited fans.
By and large, this was a season that never really got going.
Much of that, obviously, is due to the pandemic, which sucked the life out of this inaugural campaign. As great as Zoom is for keeping in contact, it doesn't quite allow you to develop chemistry as a soccer team. And that was what Miami was asked to do after just two games.
Alonso, one of the brightest minds in CONCACAF, joined up too late, linking up with the team just weeks before preseason. The roster entered the campaign largely unfinished, leading to a losing streak that saw the club claim the unfortunate record for most consecutive defeats to start a debut season.
Youngsters Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza haven't yet panned out. Designated Player Rodolfo Pizarro provided some bright moments, but never quite lived up to his price tag. And the team, as a whole, never quite packed that punch that expansion teams like Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC had from Day 1.
And so, in the summer, the club brought in much-needed reinforcements: World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi, former Juventus and Real Madrid star Higuain and MLS Cup-winning Gonzalez Pírez. But this team never felt quite complete, especially with the latter two forced out of Friday's season-defining game.
Even when that trio was fully involved, though, it never felt like Miami developed a true identity. With the roster continuously evolving throughout the season, Alonso never really found how he wanted this team to play. And, when it comes playoff time, the team that understands itself is usually the one that moves on.
On Friday, Nashville's performance served as an example of just that. A team largely built around MLS veterans with some foreign imports in skill positions, Nashville knew what they were: a plucky underdog looking to take advantage of counter-attacks and set pieces.
Miami, meanwhile, had no clear idea, with defender AJ DeLaGarza admitting the language barrier remains a problem nearly 10 months after the season began.
“As a defender, you’re trying to delay as much as possible … but we have to do better,” said AJ DeLaGarza. “The communication has to be better. The language barriers have to be better. Too many guys don’t speak Spanish, too many guys don’t speak English and that leads to not communicating on the field.”
He added: "We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves. I think a lot of guys can say they didn’t live up to what they came here to do, unfortunately. We have to go into the offseason feeling like that.”
And this will be a big offseason for Miami. This season, as stop-start as it was, can be written off as an aberration. The next one may very well be different.
Matuidi and Higuain will be settled, fans may just be back in the stadium and Alonso will have several months to build this team into something more cohesive. With Beckham involved, there's always a chance that another big star could show up and change this team for the better.
But, next time around, there will be no excuses. It's easy to write off 2020 given the factors involved, but this team now knows what it faces as preparation begins for 2021.
This 2020 season, for all its faults, will not be forgotten by Inter Miami. It will mark the year that this franchise made its long-awaited debut, that Beckham's vision became some sort of reality.
But it will also serve as a lesson, even if the circumstances that provided some of those lessons will hopefully never happen again. This wasn't a normal year and, because of that, there's still plenty of reason to believe that Miami could still become something more than a normal team.
“I think when this is all said and done, I told someone the other day you could write a book about all the things that have happened to this team,” DeLaGarza said. “Individually. Collectively. On the field. Off the field. And it could be a long book.”