Down two men, and without Messi and Suarez, Inter Miami pulls off stunner at Philly

Tata Martino’s face after the final whistle said it all.

Like everyone else who watched Inter Miami’s improbable 2-1 comeback win on the road against the Philadelphia Union Saturday night, the Miami coach seemed incredulous at what he had just witnessed.

Miami was missing Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, tied 1-1 and down to nine men after David Ruiz and Tomas Aviles were ejected with two yellow cards apiece. Then, just when it seemed Miami would have to settle for a draw and head home with one point, stoppage time substitute Leo Afonso took a bold shot in the 94th minute and it found the back of the net for the winning goal.

“Nine times out of 10 we lose that game,” Martino said. “It took effort and character to get that win despite our mistakes.”

With the victory, Inter Miami remains in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference – and atop the Supporters Shield race – with 38 points on 11 wins, three losses and five ties.

Those three points were especially gratifying because Miami will be without Messi, Suarez and Matias Rojas for the next month as the trio are in Copa America with their national teams.

“It feels great to come away with a win in the end; it was very important for the whole group,” said midfielder Julian Gressel, who scored the first Miami goal (and his first goal of the season) in the 47th minute. “It gives us a lot of confidence. Guys coming in, making a difference off the bench. Going down to 10 men, then nine men, taking our chances when we get them. It’s a good sign. Again, we conceded an early goal, but it didn’t derail us.”

Missing its leading scorers Daniel Gazdag and Julian Carranza, the Union took an early lead on a third-minute goal by Mikael Uhre, who beat his defender and fired it past Drake Callender.

Miami trailed 1-0 at halftime.

Inter Miami then mounted an attack along the left-hand side with Jordi Alba and Leo Campana connecting and getting the ball to Benjamin Cremaschi, who sent it to Gressel.

With 20 minutes left to play, Miami went down a man after Ruiz was given a second yellow card. Tomas Aviles followed suit, getting thrown out of the game with a second yellow for kicking the ball away from a Philadelphia player on a throw in.

Miami was forced to play the final five minutes of regulation plus stoppage time with nine players.

Afonso, who came in for Campana in the 90th minute, chose to keep the ball rather than pass to a sprinting Cremaschi and slipped past Union defender Jakob Glesnes. He wound up one-on-one with goalkeeper Oliver Semmle and knocked in the game winner.

“It’s an amazing feeling, hard to put words to it,” said Afonso, who grew up in Boca Raton. “I feel so blessed and thankful. Excited to get a goal with one man down on the road.”

Asked if considered passing to Cremaschi, Afonso said:

“I saw Benja right after I passed the halfway line, I knew he was making the run but as I was getting closer to the defender I saw he wasn’t keeping up with me and then I saw him biting in, so I cut to my left And then the keeper came and I saw a little space on his right side , and I put it there. If that wasn’t in the back of the net, people would be questioning my decision. Thankfully, it went in and we get a win on the road. It’s an incredible feeling.”

The feeling was extra special because the men in pink pulled off the win without Messi and Suarez, two of the leading scorers in the league. Rojas was also missing, as were injured players Fede Redondo and Diego Gomez.

“Our whole squad was not here and in the beginning of the game it showed that we missed them, that presence,” Afonso said. “As the game went on, we stepped up.”

Martino and his team have known from the start of the preseason that this would be a challenging stretch with key players missing for the Copa America, and later for the Olympics. The coach said before the game that he trusted the squad had the depth to compete. But he did not expect to finish the Union game with nine men.

“We value this win because of the circumstances,” Martino said.

As for the expulsions of Ruiz and Aviles, Martino said they are important lessons for the two young players. Ruiz is 20 and Aviles is 19.

“These are learning moments, but it is better that they learn those lessons during a win,” Martino said. “If we had lost, the criticism from outside and their self-critique would have been much harsher.”

Things get no easier for Miami on Wednesday, as the team plays a home game against defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew.