As Inter Miami contends with Matuidi-gate sanctions, rebuilding looks like a long-term project

Chris Henderson has compared the rebuilding job he is doing as sporting director of Inter Miami CF to that of the expansion season he experienced with the Seattle Sounders in 2009. Yet that's arguably an understatement considering just how onerous his current task is.

With Seattle more than a decade ago, Henderson, owner/GM Adrian Hanauer and then-manager Sigi Schmid were simply building, benefiting from having a blank canvas as a brand-new team. Now, in South Florida, the former United States international isn't just remodeling, but razing some portions of the troubled team to the ground. Ahead of this season, he engaged in 30 transactions, not including three Miami free agents who were re-signed. The Herons shed some big names as well, including Rodolfo Pizarro, who was loaned to Monterrey, and Blaise Matuidi, who is now a club ambassador. Experienced players like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Lewis Morgan were also shipped out.

If there is pain associated with so much roster turnover, much of it is self-inflicted, taking place against the backdrop of the sanctions MLS imposed on Miami when it emerged that the organization had flouted the league's roster rules during its inaugural campaign in 2020. The contracts of Matuidi and Andres Reyes meant they should have been classified as Designated Players, giving Miami two more DPs than the three allowed per league rules. Additionally, the compensation paid to Gonzalez Pirez, Nicolas Figal and Julian Carranza was underreported.

When the news broke last May, MLS fined Miami $2.27 million in allocation money, spread over the 2022 and 2023 seasons, among other penalties. Neither Henderson nor the league would indicate just how much of the hit Miami is incurring on its salary budget this season.

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"We're waiting still to hear from the league as to how those are spread out," Henderson told ESPN before the start of the season.

Henderson was hired two months before MLS announced that it was investigating the club's signing of Matuidi, and four months before the sanctions were imposed, leaving him to clean up the mess left by his predecessor: Paul McDonough, who was suspended through the 2022 season for his part in the ordeal, although he was reportedly reinstated by the league last month. Managing owner Jorge Mas also seemingly had a role to play, as the league saw fit to fine him personally to the tune of $250,000.

The early returns haven't been promising, though. Miami and the Chicago Fire (12th in the 14-team East last season) played to a tepid 0-0 draw in the season opener. The Herons then looked overmatched last weekend in losing 5-1 at Austin FC (12th in the 13-team West in 2021).

"Of course we're really disappointed," manager Phil Neville said after the defeat in Austin. "We know that we've got some new players in the team that are gonna take time to gel and learn, and they've got to learn fast and learn on the job. It's a steep learning curve for this new team but we have every belief and confidence in them and we need to rectify some of the things we saw today in terms of mistakes that we made."

It's a result that puts even more of a microscope on Miami's roster, although there is acknowledgement that Henderson is doing the best he can in terms of minimizing the hit on the salary budget. Outlays for transfer fees have been relatively modest while cap space has been cleared. Prior to the start of the season, Henderson said that he was able to capture 90% of the team's targets.

Jean Mota was acquired with the pedigree of having made more than 250 appearances for Brazilian side Santos. Leonardo Campana arrived on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and scored Miami's first goal of the season on Sunday. U.S. international defender DeAndre Yedlin should add some needed experience and versatility on the right flank. Henderson lauded the leadership role that Gonzalo Higuain has taken on this season.

That said, Higuain's on-field histrionics when things are going badly -- and his teammates' reaction to them -- is something to keep an eye on. Last week, Chicago forward Fabian Herbers said on the Zee Soccer Podcast he hosts that Higuain "is so pathetic. His whole body language is terrible. I wouldn't want to be a teammate of his. F--- that guy, I don't want any part of it."

Henderson sees the steps forward: "I think we're taking the right steps, and they're steps we needed to take" he said. "We needed to be better with the ball than we were last year in the other team's half. I think at times, we just would turn over the ball too quickly and we were spending a lot of energy defending. I think now with the speed on the flanks, and the two kinds of anchors in Gregore and Mota in the middle is really going to help us kind of calm things but be able to get after teams in moments."

Yet Sunday showed those new pieces -- eight of Sunday's 11 starters were newcomers -- who will need time to gel. In a compressed season due to the World Cup, that's a more difficult task than it otherwise might be.

"'Consistency' is the key word," Henderson said. "Last year, we didn't have consistency, we had those two stretches of [long losing streaks]. And I think we are going to focus on being steady and consistent. And some of that comes down to that balance of experience, guys that we've added into the group and the experienced guys that we kept here."

Given the scale of infractions under McDonough, the league's sanctions were designed to hurt, and they have -- at least initially -- making the goal of consistency difficult. This is especially evident as it relates to Miami's depth. An injury to center-back Damion Lowe forced Neville into an uncomfortable dilemma in which he opted to play Brek Shea as a left-sided center-back in a three-back system instead of going to a four-back system or relying on one of the younger defenders on Miami's roster. (He switched to a four-back alignment in the second half.)

Henderson and Neville have no choice but to soldier on. The sanctions are what they are, and it is up to the entire organization to cope.

"In the last six months to a year, we're just pushing forward, not thinking about the sanctions," Henderson said. "Obviously, that was a part of it, but we're moving forward with, 'This is what we have to work with. Let's build our team, the best we can to be successful this year.' Our focus has been just making sure we're moving forward."

When it comes to building out Miami's roster, it isn't just financial penalties that Henderson has had to contend with. He recalled that when he arrived ahead of the 2021 season, there were scant processes and personnel in place in terms of player recruitment. Henderson estimates that there were just 160 player reports in the team's recruitment database when he first got to Miami. Now there are more than 1,000. The data analytics and scouting departments have been built out since his arrival, and in the game of player recruitment arbitrage, that should improve the odds of Miami having more hits than misses.

"I feel like we have a really good grip on our player profiles and what we want to go for and how we want to build a team," Henderson said. "But it took building the processes to get that in place."

The sports science side has been shored up as well. Dawn Scott, previously the fitness coach of the U.S. women's national team, who worked with Neville in a similar role with England's women, has been brought in as performance director. South Florida's heat and humidity can sap the legs of the most seasoned professional, but it can add to Miami's homefield advantage if the fitness work, both on and off the training ground, is put in.

"If you have a fit team that can keep the ball, and definitely can motor, you can have success in the last 20, 30 minutes of games and you can break teams down," Henderson said.

Will Henderson's maneuvers pay off this year? Given that Miami has finished 10th in the Eastern Conference in each of its first two seasons, the bar is low. It certainly helps that Neville will have more familiarity with the league. There will be fewer surprises in terms of managing the team through the season.

As for the team itself, that is looking more like a long-term project as opposed to the instant success Henderson enjoyed in Seattle. The glitz and glamor that accompanied Miami's arrival is gone, and the handcuffs placed on Henderson extend the time horizon in terms of when the team will be successful.

Miami and its fans are just hoping the wait won't be too long.