MLS Preview Spotlight: Inter Miami’s Nicolas Figal focused on improving after difficult 2020

MLS Preview Spotlight: Inter Miami’s Nicolas Figal focused on improving after difficult 2020

Nicolas Figal has no qualms about admitting it. He was not up to par in 2020.

Figal says he has turned the page by pushing past personal problems that made last year difficult. As he prepares for a new season, Figal is solely focused on playing up to his best level this year.

Inter Miami is 11 days away from the start of its sophomore season, and one player who is heading into the campaign very eager to raise the level of his performances is Figal. The Argentine defender admittedly endured a rocky first year in MLS in 2020, starting off on a strong note during the team’s opening two matches before his form dropped off.

Being moved from his preferred centerback position to right back for large stretches during the expansion season seemed to coincide with that dip, but Figal chalked up his inconsistency to external factors, and not where he was playing positionally.

“Honestly, personal matters impacted me from a soccer standpoint,” Figal recently told SBI in Spanish. “Coming to a new country where I was alone was very difficult and on the field it impacted me, which did not allow me to give what I can really offer. That is why when I do an interview now I speak with complete sincerity.

“I know that last year I was not up to par, or at a minimum I did not repay the confidence the team gave me and where I am treated well. I will try this year to give my maximum effort. If it works well or not, we do not know, but I will give it my all and see if I can be at the level that this club requires.”

The 26-year-old Figal refrained from expanding on what exactly ailed him in his private life during Inter Miami’s expansion season, though he mentioned certain things in the “adaptation period” at different points.

One was that 2020 marked the first time he left Argentina to move to a new country he did not know, another was that he initially did so without his girlfriend and their newborn daughter, and a third was that he struggled with the English language on and off the field.

“To be a leader in another country I have to be able to talk to my teammates and they have to be able to understand me,” said Figal, who is now taking English classes via Zoom three times a week. “That is a challenge and goal for myself: to know English and be able to speak to my teammates.”

Throw in the difficulties COVID-19 presented and the previous campaign proved more rigorous than he ever could have imagined.

“Maybe for some players it was less challenging than for others,” said Figal. “But I am clear that the year was challenging for me both from a soccer standpoint as well (as) life in the United States.”

The player whose nickname is El Zorro (The Fox in English) is clear in stating he has entered 2021 with a different view and feeling. He is hungry to get going again for Inter Miami — no matter if that requires him to see the field as a centerback, right back, or both.

Where exactly Figal will get the bulk of his minutes this year is unclear. Inter Miami signed experienced central defender Ryan Shawcross in the offseason, and the Englishman could very well be used a regular starter if he can shake off the injury issues that have plagued him in recent years and rediscover his rhythm.

Figal could partner with Shawcross in the heart of the back line, of course, but MLS veteran Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is also in the mix for minutes there. New Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville — like Diego Alonso before him — views Figal as a possible solution as a right back, and has deployed the versatile player there at times this preseason.

“I do see him as a centerback and a right back. He has got the quality to do both,” Neville said recently. “His commitment, the way he just loves defending. Nowadays the modern defender probably tends to like having the ball at his feet rather than defending. Nico is the opposite.”

While Figal is candid about being more comfortable at centerback due to having more experience there, he is confident that he can also do a good job at right back despite not getting forward or whipping in crosses as often as may be desired. He even points to games he played on the outside part of the defense at Independiente as examples for why he believes he can fill the role from “a technical standpoint.”

“I may not have been at my best last year, but it was not because of playing in another position,” said Figal. “I can do it well, but I was not well from a physical standpoint, I was not well in my private life. I know maybe that means very little because the people want to see the team win and want to see you score a goal or make a pass. I understand that because that is what we are here for.

“But it was not because of the position, and more so because of personal matters.”

With those personal matters now seemingly gone, Figal is salivating at the chance to provide Inter Miami with the best version of himself. He isn’t concerned with where he will be deployed, but is instead focused on having a better showing in 2021 than he had last year.

“I want to add my little grain of sand to the team,” Figal told SBI. “If I have to do so as a fullback then I will do it as a fullback to my best abilities. If I have to do it as a centerback, I will welcome it.

“Truthfully, I am not thinking about whether I will play centerback or right back because my principle goal is to help my team and play well and I can play in both spots. It is no problem.”