Florida Derby

The rubber match is here.

On Saturday, the Lions will host intrastate opponents Inter Miami CF at Exploria Stadium for the first time, marking the third matchup between the two sides of the calendar year.

After a dramatic 2-1 victory in the reincarnation of the Florida Derby on July 8 to kick off the MLS is Back Tournament, the Lions’ neighbors to the south had the better hand in their Phase 1 opener on August 22, defeating City by a score of 3-2.

Fast forward four matches and City holds a 2-0-2 record with a win and a draw over both Nashville SC and Atlanta United, the loss in Fort Lauderdale serving as the last time the Lions tasted defeat.

Looking at Saturday’s match, City holds an opportunity to close out Phase 1 with three points on their home soil in front of a limited crowd at Exploria Stadium. That opportunity is one that Head Coach Oscar Pareja and his group are not taking lightly. 

“I see them [Inter Miami] progressing and I think we all are in that mode of trying to get better and better,” Pareja said ahead of Saturday’s match. “It’s going to be a nice game, an interesting game for us, an important game against a good rival and obviously us thinking that we have to keep the optimism and the idea of keep handling the tempo of the game.”

While the focus remains on Saturday, it is important to reflect on just how much the side has accomplished in the mere two-month span since first re-taking the field on July 8, including a trip to the MLS is Back Tournament Final that saw three members of the Lions earn Best XI honors for the competition.

Now five matches into Phase 1 of MLS’s Continuation of Play, City has rattled off an unbeaten run of four games that saw the Club earn its first victory against neighbors to the north Atlanta United, and most recently an MLS Player of the Month award for rookie forward Daryl Dike - just the second player in Club history to earn that honor.

There hasn’t been a shortage of spectacular individual moments in this span, but the success has been an entirely collective effort, with 18 different players occupying starting roles for Pareja since the beginning of Phase 1. Five different players have found the back of the net, three of which are at the age of 24 or under in Chris Mueller, Benji Michel and Dike. 

“Sometimes for the human being and the group and everybody, it’s difficult to retain with good memory what just happened because we want to move ahead and keep going and getting things,” Pareja said of the group’s recent success. “This week with the players we sat and reflected on where we have gone in the last period and now we have the opportunity to add three points at home and finish with a very good result in this phase.

“All these things in a very short period are very exciting for us and we are proud to present that to our fans and to our Club, but at the same time we feel that responsibility to just keep going. This is a long journey for us and trying to get the qualification for the playoffs is our next objective and after that hopefully we can keep dreaming to get titles and trophies for this Club.”

Pareja and his group will work toward that qualification for the playoffs with sights first set on three points on Saturday to close out Phase 1 before beginning play in the next phase of the schedule on Saturday, Sept. 19 against Chicago Fire FC.