Higuain brothers strike again, Inter Miami trounces FC Cincinnati 5-1, playoffs in reach

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Federico Higuain, two days shy of his 37th birthday, energized Inter Miami’s struggling attack for the second game in a row and helped lead the team to its most lopsided victory in club history – 5-1 over FC Cincinnati at DRV PNK Stadium.

The veteran playmaker scored on a header in the sixth minute off a pinpoint cross from Rodolfo Pizarro. Then, shortly after halftime, he delivered a sublime arching pass to the head of his younger brother, Gonzalo, who knocked it in for Miami’s second goal of the night.

After Gonzalo ran to the stands to celebrate with his wife and young daughter, he found Federico around midfield, picked him up and the two shared a long hug while the exuberant crowd of 14,927 – which included team co-owner David Beckham -- went wild.

Coach Phil Neville, whose team was on the brink of playoff elimination last week after six consecutive losses, chose to start the Higuain brothers together for back-to-back games against Toronto and Cincinnati.

The result? Two lopsided wins, three goals and five assists from the “Hermanos Higuain”, and a renewed belief that Inter Miami still has a chance to squeeze into the playoffs, although it will be tough.

Miami beat Toronto and Cincinnati by a combined score of 8-1. Granted, they are the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference; and both had been eliminated from playoff contention, but still the eight goals were a reason for fans to celebrate after Inter Miami was outscored 16-1 over its recent losing streak.

And it was Federico who was the catalyst in both games.

“When that ball came in the box, the last person you think can go and head the ball is Fede because he is one of the smallest players on the pitch, but you think about his goal against Philadelphia (also a header)…his timing, his awareness, his experience,” Neville said.

“In a way, there’s no way he should be starting a game of football at his age. But his enthusiasm, his experience and knowhow. He makes the other players around him better. He makes Gonzalo better. He makes Lewis (Morgan) better, Rodolfo, Gregore, Jay (Chapman), Blaise (Matuidi). He’s a sensational professional. We are so happy to have him.”

The telepathy between the Higuain brothers, combined with the inspired play of Pizarro made for an entertaining game.

“When the Higuain brothers and Pizarro are in there together you just sit back and enjoy the passing because the ball sticks, the ball is the right weight,” Neville said. “It’s passed to the side of the defender the defender can’t get. No sloppy passes. They have a knack for finding the spaces.”

Neville heaped praise on Pizarro, who had two assists and played with great energy, racing down the field to chase a loose ball just before it reached the end line, leading to his assist on Federico’s goal. He had started the previous two games on the bench. The coach said Pizarro had a “sensational” attitude on Thursday at training, and he had a feeling he would have a good game.

“A lot of people will get plaudits, but I thought Pizarro was outstanding,” Neville said. “He deserved that performance. When I was bringing on Juli (Carranza) and Sami (Guediri) I saw his little face look at me as if to say, `Is it me coming off the pitch?’ No. He deserved to stay on the pitch. We had a lot of brilliant performances and I thought Pizarro was the pick of the bunch.”

The score was tied 1-1 at halftime after Brandon Vazquez headed in a goal for last-place Cincinnati in the 21st minute. Miami had taken nine shots, but only one on frame.

“At halftime, I told them it’s up to them,” Neville said. “If they wanted to win the game by 5, they could win by 5. If they didn’t and wanted to put the flip flops on for the rest of the season and book their holidays, then they could decide that because I thought that game was there for the taking.”

They took his challenge to heart.

After Gonzalo Higuain’s goal in the 53rd minute, the floodgates opened for Miami. Indiana Vassilev came off the bench and scored with a rocket of a shot from the right post in the 69th minute. Lewis Morgan scored five minutes later and appeared to score a second goal but it was waved off for offside.

Carranza capped the scoring in the 85th minute with his first goal of the season.

“We suffered too much in last stretch of the season, so these two victories give us hope and strength,” Federico Higuain said.

The elder brother said he was not surprised by Gonzalo’s performance.

“He’s a very good player, I have a lot of respect for him, and I’ve know his capacity,” Federico said. “I have followed his incredible career on very important clubs, and now on a club that also wants to be important.”

Gonzalo Higuain, as the third-highest paid player in MLS, has been under immense pressure since he arrived in the league in September 2020. Neville said the weight on his shoulders has been a burden at times and affected his play.

“What I loved about his goal is how much it meant to him, how he celebrates with his baby and wife, it shows how much he cares,” Neville said. “What you don’t realize about Gonzalo is he is so sensitive to the team, he cares almost too much. It takes him days to get over defeats because it hurts him so much. When you’re a DP you carry the weight of the team and he takes everything personally. We’ve had to work on him, and tell him he can’t win the games himself. Can’t beat himself up.”

Miami is in 10th place with 38 points, five points away from the playoff line with three games remaining – on the road against Atlanta, at home against New York City FC and on the road at New England.

“We live to fight another day,” Neville said. “We’ve got three games left. We’ve got to keep believing, go to Atlanta and win. We’re enjoying the challenge.”

He said they will need Gonzalo Higuain to keep playing like he did the past two games.

“Ultimately, when Gonzalo plays well the team plays well,” Neville said. “We need him to be Gonzalo from Juventus, from Napoli, from Chelsea, from Real Madrid. We need that big performance as we do from all our big players.”

There were three changes in the lineup from the Toronto game. Pizarro and Blaise Matuidi – two of the team’s high-priced Designated Players – were back as starters and 6-6 rookie defender Aime Mabika, called up from the USL Fort Lauderdale as an emergency player, started in back.

Both starting center backs were out. Nico Figal’s calf injury is taking longer than expected to heal and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was suspended for accumulation of yellow cards. Forward Robbie Robinson missed the game with a stomach flu.

The evening began with a moment of silence for Hollywood Police Officer Yandy Chirino, who was killed at age 28 on Oct. 17 in the line of duty. Chirino was born in Cuba and graduated from Coral Park High in 2011 and FIU in 2015.

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