Memo to South Florida sports fans: The Hurricanes, Panthers and Dolphins are not the only local teams hosting big games this weekend. In fact, one could argue Miami FC hosts the most significant game of them all – a league semifinal against the defending champion New York Cosmos.
Miami enters Sunday’s 5 p.m. game at FIU’s Riccardo Silva Stadium as the top seed in the four-team NASL playoffs. With a victory, Miami will host the NASL Championship final Nov. 12.
No team in recent NASL history has dominated the way Miami has this season. Miami finished with the best record in both the Spring and Fall seasons, and a combined record of 21-5-6 for a record-69 points, well ahead of second-place San Francisco’s 54 points.
Miami knocked off two Major League Soccer teams in the U.S. Open Cup – Orlando City and Atlanta – before losing in the quarterfinal to FC Cincinnati.
Five Miami FC players are finalists for league MVP: forward Stefano Pinho, midfielder Dylan Mares, forward Vincenzo Rennella, midfielder Richie Ryan and goalkeeper Daniel Vega. Pinho, a Brazil native, is the league’s leading scorer with 17 goals. Rennella, from France, is second with 11 goals, and Miami’s third forward, Jaime Chavez of Los Angeles, has scored 10.
With 61 total goals, Miami FC is the most prolific team in the league, and also the stingiest with an average of 0.9 goals allowed per game.
“We set out to do something really special when the season started and we’re really close,” said captain Mike Lahoud. “For us, there’s a responsibility to get the ending we deserve. We want to give our fans, the organization and ourselves the ending to the season that we’ve worked our butts off for, and that’s to culminate in a title. That would be a perfect icing on the cake for an incredible season so far.”
Under coach Alessandro Nesta, the Italian legendary defender, two-year-old Miami FC has evolved from an unknown expansion club to the toast of the league.
“We’ve had target on our backs since the season started because of the roster we boast, the depth we boast and the audacity we sent out that we weren’t just going to be a team that played to win, but a team that won in style,” Lahoud said. “We’ve shown we can go toe-to-toe with MLS teams. We came very close to realizing our goal in the Open Cup, beating some very good teams and making a statement and rattling a few cages around the country to let people know Miami FC is for real.”
Community support for Miami FC reached its peak during the U.S. Open Cup, when a crowd of 10,415 showed up for the quarterfinal against Cincinnati.
Attendance has dipped the past two months, due largely to the rainy weather, but CEO Sean Flynn expects “the roller coaster to go right back up to the top” on Sunday.
“The hurricanes and tropical storms have been a significant issue for us,” said Flynn, who has been checking his weather app regularly throughout the fall season. “We were squeezing in matches before a hurricane, people were putting up panels on their windows and we’re playing a match because we need to get it in. Thanks to those brave souls who did make it out, but we didn’t get the numbers we would have gotten if the weather was nicer.
“Even last Saturday, there was a tornado warning in the area two hours before kickoff. The media were predicting 100 percent chance of severe thunderstorms and tropical depression right at game time. Fortunately, we got the game in in a downpour, but when you’ve got 48 hours of lead time telling South Florida the weather Saturday night will be horrific and then a tornado warning, that’s not very good for ticket sales.”
Sunday’s game figures to be a close one, based on the five matchups between the teams this season. Each team won two, lost two and they tied 3-3 in their most recent game on Sept. 6. The Cosmos, who have won three of the past four NASL titles, are led by Argentine midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma. He scored a hat trick against Puerto Rico in a recent game, and is one of the league’s most dangerous players.
The Cosmos are coached by Giovanni Savarese, a Venezuelan of Italian descent who moved to the United States to play college soccer at Long Island University and went on to star in MLS.
“It’ll be a chess match,” Lahoud said. “They’re a very well-coached team. I have the upmost respect for Savarese and his staff. Whatever we do, they’re going to keep us on our toes. We are the team that set the bar this season and they’re the team that set the bar in seasons past. It should be a great day. I hope the fans come out. Miami loves winners. We’ve proven we’re winners.”
NASL Semifinalists: Miami FC (69), San Francisco (54), North Carolina and NY Cosmos (45)
MLS: East – Toronto (69), NYCFC (57), Chicago and Atlanta (55). West – Portland and Seattle (53), Vancouver (52)
EPL: Manchester City (28), Manchester United (23), Tottenham (20), Chelsea and Arsenal (19).
La Liga: Barcelona (28), Valencia (24), Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid (20), Sevilla (19)
Serie A: Napoli (31), Inter (29), Juventus and Lazio (28), Roma (24)
Bundesliga: Bayern (23), Dortmund (20), Leipzig (19), Hannover (18), Schalke (17)
Ligue I: PSG (29), Monaco (25), Lyon (22), Marseilles (21), Nantes (20)
Sunday- Tottenham vs Crystal Palace (7 a.m., NBCSN), Manchester City vs. Arsenal (9:15 a.m., NBCSN), Chelsea vs. Manchester United (11:30 a.m., NBCSN), Toronto vs. NY Red Bulls (3 p.m., ESPN), NYCFC vs. Columbus (5 p.m., ESPN), Portland vs. Houston (7:30 p.m., FS1)